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Authors: Dilly Court

Tags: #Sagas, #Fiction

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BOOK: A Mother's Secret
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The next day, travelling in two hackney carriages at Eli’s expense, they made their way to Pedlar’s Orchard. Flora, Belinda and Eli travelled in the first carriage with Cassy, Mrs Wilkins and Freddie following on in the second vehicle. Flora had decided that they needed a cook-general and that Mrs Wilkins had proved herself in the culinary department and would be an ideal person for the job, even if that meant taking Freddie in as well. Cassy was delighted with the arrangement, and the room next to the kitchen had been made ready with a single bed and a truckle bed for the boy.

That evening, when supper was over and Freddie had been put to bed, Mrs Wilkins was happy to spend the evening by the kitchen range with her knitting, and Flora was snoozing in her chair by the fire in the front parlour. Cassy had cleared the table in the dining room and had finished tidying everything away ready for breakfast next morning when she heard Eli and her mother talking in the hall. She put her head round the door, meaning to say goodnight to him, but she was startled to see Eli take her mother’s hand and instead of raising it briefly to his lips, he clutched it to his heart as though he could not bear to let her go.

‘Goodnight, Eli,’ Belinda said gently. ‘Thank you for everything that you’ve done for us. I will always be in your debt.’

‘Goodnight, sweet lady. I can’t bear to say goodbye.’

Cassy stole another peep around the door, wondering whether to go and rescue her mother from her over-sentimental admirer. She held her breath as Eli rather clumsily drew Belinda into an amorous embrace. She struggled free, pushing him away. ‘Mr Solomon, don’t spoil things.’

‘I want to spoil you, Lady Belle. I’m not good with words, but you must know that I adore you. I mean no disrespect.’ He threw himself down on his knees. ‘I worship you, Belle. I love you with all my heart and I would be most honoured if you would consent to be my wife.’

Chapter Sixteen

Belinda glanced anxiously down the hallway. She thought she had heard the dining room door creak on its hinges, but there was no one in sight. However, it was only a matter of time and Flora might appear from the parlour, or, even worse, Cassy would emerge from the dining room to find her mother in a compromising situation. She did not want to hurt Eli’s feelings but she could not allow the poor man to harbour hopes that were never going to be fulfilled. ‘Please get up, Eli.’

He clutched his hands to his heart. ‘I love you, Belle. Say you’ll marry me and make me the happiest man in the world.’

‘I’m so sorry, but I can’t. If I’ve ever given you the slightest encouragement or the wrong impression as to my feelings, then I’m truly sorry.’

He scrambled to his feet, dusting off his trousers at the knee. ‘I’ve spoken too soon. I should not have allowed my feelings to run away with me. Forgive me, dear lady.’

Belinda laid her hand on his arm. ‘There is nothing to forgive. You’ve done me a great honour, and I’m touched, but I cannot marry you, or anyone for that matter.’

He bowed his head, avoiding her gaze. ‘I’m too old for you, I realise that.’

‘No, you’re a man in his prime,’ Belinda said in desperation, fearing that any moment he might break down and weep. ‘Any woman of sense would be proud to be your wife.’

He glanced at her beneath his brows. ‘Is it because I am a Jew?’

‘No, never think that, Eli. Race and religion have nothing to do with my feeling for you. I’m very fond of you, and I have the greatest respect for you. You are the kindest, sweetest man I’ve ever met.’

A wry smile twisted his lips. ‘But you do not love me.’

‘I’d be lying if I said anything else. My heart is buried in the grave, and I’ll never marry again.’

‘Your husband was a most fortunate man, Lady Belle. How I envy him.’

Belinda realised that he was referring to Geoffrey, but she did not correct his mistake. Her heart had been frozen in time and was buried in an unknown grave somewhere in India with George, the only man she had ever loved or could ever love. ‘I’m sorry to cause you pain, Eli. I hope this won’t spoil our friendship.’

‘I should not have spoken. I knew it was a vain hope.’ He opened the front door and a gust of cold wind whipped around their legs, sending in a shower of dried leaves and bits of straw. ‘I’ll go now. Goodbye, dear lady.’ He stepped out into the gathering gloom.

‘For heaven’s sake shut the door. The draught blew my candle out.’

Flora’s irascible voice made Belinda turn with a start. She closed the door with an effort. ‘I’m sorry, Flora. I was just saying goodnight to Eli.’

‘That man has designs on you,’ Flora said, retreating into the warmth of the parlour. ‘I suppose you could do worse,’ she added as Belinda took a seat opposite her. ‘He’s not very prepossessing, and he may be in trade, but at least he’s got a good business.’

In spite of everything, Flora’s pragmatic approach was such a turnabout for the grand dame who had mixed with London society that Belinda could not suppress a giggle.

‘What’s funny?’ Flora demanded. ‘Have I said something amusing?’

‘No, not really. It’s just that a few weeks ago you wouldn’t have entertained such an idea.’

‘Nor would I,’ Flora agreed, nodding her head. ‘But times change and we’ve had to change with them. Look at us, Belle. Two unattached women, forced to live in a hovel on fifty pounds a year. Fulford-Browne, God bless him, would be turning in his grave if he knew what a sorry pass I’ve come to.’

‘At least he had the foresight to set something aside for you, Flora. If only Geoffrey had been as thoughtful I wouldn’t be in this plight now.’ Belinda stared into the fire, watching the orange tongues of flames lick around the coal. She sighed. ‘I’m still young and I could earn my living, if only I could think of something at which I excelled. But my education was limited to subjects that were considered suitable for a young woman whose only purpose in life was to be a good wife and mother. Unfortunately I failed at both.’

‘Nonsense. You were as good a wife as Geoffrey deserved, and as to the mother business, well, you did what you thought was for the best. You were a child yourself, and you had little say in the matter.’

‘But I’m grown up now, and I must take control of my destiny. One of the first things I must do is to write to Ollie and give him our new address. Poor boy, he’s the one who will suffer most from his father’s disgrace.’

‘It will build his character,’ Flora said, slipping off her shoes and wriggling her toes in front of the fire. ‘The coal scuttle is empty, Belle. Ring for Wilkins.’

Belinda rose to her feet. ‘She’s not a young woman. You can’t expect her to run up and down the stairs with buckets of coal.’

‘Then send young Cassy to fetch it. She’s hale and hearty and you look as though a puff of wind would blow you away. I hope you’re not pining for my brother, Belle. He wasn’t worth it and you’ll find someone else. I’ve no doubts on that score.’

Snatching up the coal scuttle, Belinda made for the door. ‘I’m stronger than I look, and for your information, I turned Eli down when he proposed to me this evening.’

‘I know,’ Flora said with a smug smile. ‘I was listening at the door. You handled that quite well.’

‘You’re incorrigible,’ Belinda said, chuckling. ‘But I hope I haven’t hurt his feelings too much. He’s a dear and he’s been a perfect gentleman.’

‘And he’s a useful contact. Think about it, Belle. Eli makes bespoke garments for wealthy merchants and men of business. I could use my knowledge of society to send him clients of a higher standing, and in doing so I might find husband number five. I’m not completely past my prime.’

‘Then perhaps you should marry Eli,’ Belinda said, keeping her face straight with difficulty. ‘You could do well together and even set him up in Savile Row.’ She left the room without waiting for a response and she was still smiling when she almost bumped into Cassy in the dark hallway. ‘Oh Lord, Cassy. You gave me a fright. I thought you were a ghost.’

Cassy took the coal scuttle from her mother’s hands. ‘Let me fetch the coal, Ma. I said I’m going to earn my keep and I meant it.’

‘Thank you, dear. I am a little tired. It’s been a long day.’

Cassy turned towards the basement steps, and then hesitated. ‘I overheard some of your conversation with Mr Solomon, Ma. I’m glad you turned him down.’

Belinda felt the blood rush to her cheeks. ‘I did nothing to encourage him, Cassy. You must believe that. I know how fond you are of Eli and Lottie, and I wouldn’t hurt him for the world.’

‘I know, Ma. He couldn’t help himself, poor old fellow.’

‘Oh, Cassy, he’s not so old. I doubt if he’s more than forty-five, but I was just the same as you when I was young. Anyone over twenty was middle-aged, and people in their thirties were ancient. Now I’m thirty-three and I don’t feel any different from when I was seventeen.’

‘Well, he’s too old for you anyway,’ Cassy said defensively. ‘You should marry a rich lord or an earl, or someone who can take care of you in a proper manner.’

‘I’ll never marry again. I’m going to find a way to earn my own living and keep both of us in style. Now, are you going for the coal before Flora starts shouting, or shall I?’

Later that evening, Belinda was sitting up in bed with her feet on a hot brick wrapped in a piece of flannel, hugging a shawl around her shoulders as she attempted to compose a letter to Oliver. She had penned a brief missive informing him of his father’s death, but now she needed to let him know that there was a home waiting for him when he returned to England. She would make sure that the spare room on the top floor was kept in readiness to receive her stepson whenever he chose to visit them. She dipped the pen into the inkwell she had borrowed from Flora, but the nib scratched on the paper and made a large blot. Then the words started to run into each other like a colony of ants racing across the page, and her eyelids were becoming increasingly heavy. She decided to leave the task until the morning, and setting aside the writing implements, she blew out the candle and snuggled down in the bed, which was comfortable thanks to Flora’s insistence that they purchase new feather mattresses for everyone, including young Freddie. Belinda closed her eyes and abandoned herself to sleep.

The first weeks in Pedlar’s Orchard were spent settling in and making the house as comfortable as possible. As the days progressed, Belinda set about finding suitable work, writing advertisements to place in shop windows offering her services to teach young ladies painting and deportment, which was all that she could think of that might be useful. She received one or two enquiries, but the women who contacted her merely needed someone to look after their young children while they went out to work in the manufactories, and were offering very little by way of payment. Belinda was only too well aware that Flora must have spent her entire first quarter’s allowance, but somehow there was always food on the table, coal for the fires and candles to light when the dark winter evenings drew in.

Cassy took Freddie to the ragged school each morning and collected him at midday when lessons ended. She helped Mrs Wilkins in the kitchen as well as cleaning out the grates, dusting, sweeping and polishing and in general acting as a maid of all work. Belinda was not happy to see her daughter being used as a domestic and she attempted to help, but her inexperience was all too evident and she found herself struggling with the most simple of household tasks. Flora went out each day, wrapped in a slightly moth-eaten but serviceable cloak which she had purchased in a dolly shop. It smelt strongly of naphthalene and camphor, used to keep moths at bay, but it was lined with rabbit fur and as the winter approached even fashion-conscious Flora had to admit it was a necessary adjunct to her depleted wardrobe. The reason for her long walks went unexplained until one foggy afternoon Belinda simply had to ask the question that had been burning on her lips.

‘Where have you been?’ she demanded as Flora slipped off the heavy cloak and let it fall onto the sofa, where no doubt Cassy would be expected to retrieve it and hang it on its peg in the hall. ‘Where do you go each day? And don’t tell me it’s for a constitutional because I won’t believe you. You hate exercise, you know you do.’

‘I’d love a cup of tea and a slice of Mrs Wilkins’ seed cake,’ Flora said calmly, taking her seat by the fire. ‘It’s getting colder each day now. I wouldn’t be surprised if we had some snow.’

‘Flora, stop teasing me. If you don’t tell me, I’m afraid I might scream.’

‘I’ve been out walking with a gentleman friend.’ Flora leaned over to unlace her boots. ‘Fetch me my slippers, there’s a good girl.’

At a loss for words, Belinda picked up the satin slippers that she had left warming in the hearth. She held them behind her back. ‘I’m not giving them to you until you tell me everything. Who is this man? Has he a name and how did you meet him?’

‘It’s Mullins. I didn’t tell you because I knew you would make fun of me. Now please give me my slippers.’

Handing them to her, Belinda sat down on the sofa, deflated and shocked. ‘Farmer Mullins? The man with the calf?’

‘Yes, Farmer Mullins. The man who gave us the capon and has been providing us with eggs, butter and cheese for the last few weeks, to say nothing of the odd boiling fowl and the leg of lamb we ate on Sunday.’

Belinda ran her hand across her brow. ‘But I still don’t understand how this all came about.’

‘It seems that the fellow isn’t so simple after all. He managed to persuade Nixon to give him our address, although I’m certain that is not the done thing.’

‘That doesn’t explain why you’ve been meeting him in secret, Flora. What could you two have in common?’

‘It isn’t like that, silly girl. Mullins is a decent sort of chap, despite speaking with that awful Essex accent and wearing clothes that smell of the farmyard. We’ve been meeting in the Gunmaker’s Arms, in a private parlour, of course, and I’ve been teaching him to read and write.’

‘And he pays for his tuition with farm produce.’ Belinda eyed Flora with growing respect. ‘Who would have thought it?’

‘I don’t know why you’re so surprised, Belle. I can be practical when the occasion demands. Now I would really appreciate that cup of tea and a slice of cake. I think I’ve earned it.’

Despite the continued gifts of farm produce from Farmer Mullins, money was in short supply. Belinda had pawned her last piece of jewellery in order to buy coal, candles and lamp oil as well as other staples such as flour, sugar and salt, but a spell of unusually cold weather at the beginning of December was making their life even more difficult. Flora’s quarterly allowance was not due until the beginning of January, and, despite her continued efforts, Belinda had failed to find suitable employment. Against her mother’s wishes, Cassy had found a job in a pub kitchen where she worked six nights a week washing dishes. It brought in a few pennies but it was nowhere near enough to pay the rent, and Belinda was becoming desperate, although Flora remained unworried. ‘The landlord is in Jamaica,’ she said with a shrug. ‘I’m sure his agent will give us time to find the money.’

The rent collector was unsympathetic, but Belinda managed to persuade him to give them another week. Although Flora brushed her worries aside, Belinda continued to be anxious. She was desperate to find work, and when Eli arrived at the house one evening on the pretext of giving them news of Lottie’s progress at the hospital, Belinda decided to ask his advice. After all, he was a successful businessman and if anyone could help, it was he. She sat on the sofa with Cassy, listening while he talked about his beloved daughter. She was, he said, studying hard and had earned praise from all her tutors. One day he was certain that she would become a fully qualified doctor, if the stuffy old men at the top of the profession ever gave women the chance they deserved. It was an insult to womanhood that Mrs Garrett Anderson had been forced to go to France in order to get her degree in medicine. His eyes misted over whenever he spoke about the struggles ahead for Lottie.

BOOK: A Mother's Secret
13.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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