Authors: Dilly Court
Tags: #Sagas, #Fiction
‘I’ve no wish to hear that. Take her away, Nancy. I don’t want to see her again until she’s decent.’ Mrs Middleton turned to Mahdu, dismissing Cassy with a wave of her hand. ‘You can tell your mistress that the child will be well cared for here.’
‘C’mon, you.’ Nancy prodded Cassy in the back. ‘Go through the kitchen into the scullery. I hope there’s plenty of hot water ’cos it looks like you’ll need a good soak and a scrub with carbolic to get you white again.’
Cassy shot a helpless glance in Mahdu’s direction but she seemed deep in conversation with the woman in black. Cassy knew then that she was well and truly on her own. She stopped in the doorway, turning on Nancy with a determined lift of her chin. ‘It ain’t all dirt. I was born in India and I can’t help the colour of me skin.’
Nancy grinned. ‘Well, I’m half Irish. I suppose that makes us both foreigners.’
An hour later Cassy was wrapped in a towel and seated at the long table in the servants’ hall eating boiled mutton and caper sauce, a delicacy that she had never even heard of, let alone tasted. Her scalp was sore where Nancy had dragged a fine-toothed comb through it again and again to remove the head lice and nits, and her eyes still smarted from the vinegar rinse that had found its way into them even though she had kept them shut tight. Her whole body glowed after being rubbed with lye soap and scrubbed with a loofah. She was licking the gravy from her plate when Nancy entered the room carrying a bowl of something that smelt sweet and delicious.
‘Strewth, girl. You’ll bust a gut if you keep stuffing your face like that.’ Nancy whisked away the plate. ‘And don’t let Mrs M catch you doing that. It ain’t done.’ She set the bowl on the table in front of Cassy. ‘Try that. I bet you ain’t never tasted nothing like Cook’s treacle pudding and custard. I reckon we’re the best fed servants in the whole of London. We has to work hard for our vittles, but at least Mrs Middleton sees we gets fed proper. I never saw such food until I come here. Bread and scrape is what we gets at home in Clapton, with Clare Market duck on high days and holidays.’
Cassy paused with a spoonful of golden pudding and creamy custard halfway to her lips. ‘What’s Clare Market duck when it’s at home?’
‘Boiled bullock’s head stuffed with sage and onions. Very tasty, but Cook wouldn’t be seen dead serving suchlike to her upstairs. Very particular is Mrs Fulford-Browne.’ Nancy pulled out a chair and sat down next to Cassy. ‘We calls her Flo in private, that’s the nickname given her by her toff friends, but be careful not to say it in front of Mrs M or Cook. They’d tan your backside if they heard such disrespect.’ Nancy tapped the side of her nose, but her smile faded as Mrs Middleton entered the room.
‘Haven’t you any work to do, Nancy?’
‘Yes’m.’ Nancy bobbed a curtsey and hurried into the kitchen.
Cassy eyed Mrs Middleton warily, gulping down her food as fast as she could in case her plate was snatched away from her before she had scraped out the last delicious drop of custard.
‘I’ve found a dress that fitted the scullery maid when she first started working here,’ Mrs Middleton said, holding up a garment that was far prettier than anything Cassy had ever possessed in her whole life. She dropped her spoon on the plate with a clatter.
‘Is that for me, missis?’
‘You must address me as Mrs Middleton. Stand up and drop the towel. There’s no one to see you but me, and I’ve had five children of my own, so the sight of a naked girl is nothing new to me.’
Cassy stood up and allowed the towel to fall to the floor, holding her arms above her head and shivering as the cool cotton print slid over her skinny frame. Mrs Middleton made tut-tutting noises as she fastened the buttons at the back. The dress was at least two sizes too large, but with a few judicious tucks and by dint of tying the sash tightly round Cassy’s slender waist, the resultant fit was reasonable.
‘Passable,’ Mrs Middleton said, pursing her lips. ‘But you’ll soon grow into it. Now we must find you some boots. Your old ones have been consigned to the dustcart.’
Cassy fingered the material with a thrill of delight. ‘I ain’t never had nothing so fine.’
‘Undoubtedly. Now what on earth am I to do with a girl your age?’ Mrs Middleton eyed Cassy as though she were a firework about to explode. ‘What can you do, child?’
‘I can sweep floors and look after babies,’ Cassy said earnestly. ‘I’m good with nippers.’
‘There are no nippers, as you call them, in this house. You are the youngest person here and I intend it to remain that way.’
‘But where are your nippers?’ Cassy asked shyly. ‘Don’t they live with you now?’
‘My children are grown up and married with families of their own. Not that it’s any of your business, Cassy. You must learn to be seen and not heard. You are not only a child, but you are in service now. You will share an attic room with Nancy and Clara, and you will do as you are told at all times. Do you understand me?’
Cassy understood only too well. She had spent her short life under Biddy’s strict rule where even the slightest mistake was rewarded by a thrashing or a cuff round the head. She expected nothing less here. The house might be a palace and she might be dressed like a little princess, but she had few illusions as to her position in the scheme of things. She was at the bottom of the pile, but even so a small flame of optimism burned in her soul. From the bottom there was only one way to go and that was up.
Mrs Middleton tweaked Cassy’s ear just hard enough to make her look up with a start. ‘You were daydreaming. I don’t believe you heard a single word I said.’
Cassy bit her lip. The accusation was true; she had not even been aware that Mrs Middleton was speaking. She said nothing, which had been the safest course when she was being berated by Biddy. Mrs Middleton sighed heavily. ‘I can see that this is going to be very difficult. Come with me.’
Cassy followed her out of the servants’ hall and down a winding passage with doors leading off on either side. There was lettering on them but as Cassy could not read the words meant nothing to her. Mrs Middleton stopped and selected a key from the bunch hanging at her waist. She unlocked a door and went into the room, beckoning Cassy to follow her. ‘This is the sewing room,’ she said, pointing to a chair. ‘Sit down and you can show me how competent you are with a needle and thread.’ She selected a torn sheet from a pile on the table and held it up. ‘This sheet has been turned sides to middle, but is now past repair, and I want it made into dusting cloths.’ With one swift movement she ripped it in half, repeating the action until she had six raw-edged pieces of material. ‘I want these hemmed neatly.’ She took a wicker sewing basket from a shelf and put it down on the table in front of Cassy. ‘You’ll find needles, thread and scissors inside. I’ll leave you to get on with it and I’ll come back in an hour to see how you’re getting on.’ She whisked out of the room without giving Cassy a chance to speak.
Cassy was eager to please but she was also curious. She sat for a moment taking in the details of the small room, from the red Turkey carpet on the floor to the whitewashed walls lined with shelves. The dark wood mantelshelf was bare of ornaments except for a small brass clock, but as Cassy could not tell the time it was pointless trying to work out the passing of the hour. The furnishings were minimal: a table covered with a chenille cloth; two wooden chairs with rush seats; and a strange-looking contraption set against the far wall. Cassy rose to her feet to examine the sewing machine but a tentative touch of her foot on the treadle made the thing whirr into life, causing her to leap away from it in fear. She had no idea what it did, but she was not going to touch it again in case it did something even more alarming. She had visions of her fingers being trapped beneath the fierce-looking needle, or her hair being caught up in the wheel. She went instead to the window and peered out, but all she could see was a narrow passage and a high wall topped with iron railings. She went back to the table and opened the basket to search for a needle and thread. She had never been taught how to sew but had picked up the rudiments by studying seams on ready-made clothes. She had also taught herself to darn after a fashion, and sewing a straight seam was reasonably easy.
She set to work, eager to please Mrs Middleton and to demonstrate that she was capable of earning her keep. But as she plied her needle her mind was free to wander and her thoughts inevitably turned to Bailey and the children she had been forced to abandon. She hoped and prayed that he would not be in too much trouble with the angry sergeant, and that they would not punish him for trying to do the right thing by her and the nippers. A lump of sheer misery settled in her stomach with the thought that she might never see her friend again. Even if he was allowed leave from the army, he would not know where to begin looking for her, and she had no idea where to find him. As to the babies, she could only hope that they stood a chance of survival in the workhouse. She tried not to think of the young girl who was mother to the twins; the poor thing would be heartbroken if she tried to find them in Three Herring Court and discovered that her babies had been spirited away. It would be enough to kill her, Cassy thought sadly. Then there was Freddie, left in the children’s ward at Bart’s hospital. As she plied her needle, Cassy made a firm resolve, a promise to herself that she would find a way to visit him there, come what may.
She had been so intent on her task that she had not noticed that it was getting dark, and the room was cold as no one had thought to light a fire to keep Cassy warm while she worked. She had no means of lighting the work candles and she was having difficulty in seeing her stitches. She looked up with a start as the door opened and light flooded into the room.
‘Good heavens, child. Why are you sitting in the dark?’ Mrs Middleton sailed into the room carrying a lighted oil lamp which she placed on the table. She glanced at the empty grate and shivered. ‘I told that dratted girl to light the fire in here.’ She snatched the piece of material from Cassy’s numb fingers. ‘You’re blue with cold, child. Have you no commonsense? Why didn’t you come and ask for candles and someone to light the fire?’
Cassy shook her head. ‘I didn’t like to.’ She thought for a moment that Mrs Middleton was going to tell her off, but she turned away to examine the tiny stitches that Cassy had laboriously worked on the worn cloth.
‘I’m surprised,’ Mrs Middleton said, picking over the small pile of dusting cloths. ‘You’ve worked hard and these are quite passable for their intended purpose. I think with some tuition you might become a good needlewoman, Cassy. Maybe you will be of some use to us after all.’
Cassy’s heart swelled with pride. This was the first compliment she had ever received and she did not quite know how to respond. She said nothing, but she could not help smiling.
‘I’d quite forgotten you,’ Mrs Middleton said, folding the cloths and replacing them on the table. ‘We’ve had supper but I’ll get Cook to make up a tray for you, and as a special treat you can have it in my private room. I don’t want you going down with a chill on your first day in Duke Street. Come with me.’ She bustled out of the room with Cassy stumbling after her.
Later, after a supper of vegetable soup and a plate of bread thickly spread with butter, followed by a slice of seed cake and a cup of cocoa, Cassy was taken up to the top of the house where she was to share a room with Nancy and Clara. It was chilly in the room beneath the eaves, but for the first time in her life she had a proper bed with a wool mattress, a pillow, clean sheets and a patchwork coverlet. Clara, the scullery maid who had outgrown the frock that Cassy now wore, had been delegated to show her where she slept. She was a lumpy East End girl of fourteen, with a spotty complexion and a wide mouth that never seemed to be closed. Words spilled from her mouth in a constant stream, and if she was not complaining about one thing or another she was passing on titbits of gossip. She had made it plain that she thought the task in hand was beneath her, but she rather grudgingly emptied a drawer in the pine chest for Cassy’s use.
‘Is that all you got?’ Clara said, eyeing Cassy’s possessions with a curl of her lip. ‘I’ll be keeping an eye on you, young ’un, so don’t think you can borrow any of my things, because if you touch anything of mine I’ll chop your fingers off.’ She whisked a large white china chamber pot from beneath her bed. ‘If you have to go in the night you piss in this, not on your mattress. The last kitchen maid we had was a regular bed-wetter. Mrs M got rid of her pretty damn quick I can tell you. You don’t do that, I hope.’
Cassy shook her head. She was still eyeing the chamber pot in awe. All they had in Three Herring Court was a zinc bucket, which was put out in the morning for the night soil collectors. She was learning how the rich folk up West lived and it was quite a revelation.
‘It won’t bite you, silly,’ Clara said impatiently. ‘Anyway, you’d best get into bed afore Nancy and me comes up. We’re slipping out for a few minutes. Nancy has her eye on the boot boy next door, and I fancy the butcher’s lad, but he can’t always get off in time so we might be out after lock-up.’
‘But how will you get in if the door’s locked?’ Cassy stared at her wide-eyed.
‘We got our ways of getting in after old Poulton’s gone to bed, but if you split on us it’ll be the worse for you, nipper. I’ll cut your tongue out with Cook’s sharpest chiv. D’you understand me, Cassy?’
She might not be able to read and write but Cassy knew that a chiv was a blade, and she had learned long ago that you did not argue with someone wielding a knife. She was not sure that Clara would carry out such a threat, but she was not going to take any chances. ‘I won’t say nothing, Clara. Cross me heart and hope to die.’