Authors: Freda Lightfoot
‘She isn’t usually quite so venomous,’ Grayson
was saying by way of apology. ‘Mother can be charming, funny, and generous when she wishes to be, but life has embittered her. My father made some bad investments and consequently lost half their fortune.’
‘I’m sorry to hear it, but that’s no reason to condemn my morals just because they are different from hers.’
Grayson shrugged powerful shoulders and carelessly slid his hands into his trouser pockets, his favourite relaxed mode. ‘I’ve given up trying to understand or change her. You have to accept people for what they are, don’t you think?’
‘Your mother obviously doesn’t think so.’
He chuckled. ‘Forget her, we’re supposed to be talking about business, not a misguided parent.’
‘So we are.’
‘Would you like to tell me your ideas?’
‘Why not?’ Livia took a breath. ‘I’d like to get rid of the floorwalkers for a start, or at least give them something less pretentious to do, and allow customers to browse freely. New uniform for the staff, perhaps something smart in grey: ankle-length rather than floor-sweeping, funereal black.’
He gave a wry smile. ‘That might be a good idea when we can afford it. I doubt new uniform should be a priority though.’
‘I disagree. First impressions when a customer
walks into a shop are of vital importance. Angel’s Department Store needs to look young and fresh, not old and Victorian.’
As they walked they exchanged and explored their very different plans for the store. It took some time but finally they arrived at some measure of agreement, and what might be termed a plan of campaign. The lake was too long to circle, so after a while they turned and began to retrace their steps. Livia groaned as she glanced at her fob watch.
‘I didn’t mean to be away quite so long. I do hope Jack has been behaving himself.’
‘I’m sure Mother will keep him under control.’
‘That’s what I’m afraid of,’ and they both laughed.
Grayson again apologised for her behaviour. ‘There was always a cruel edge to her wit. I – as you witnessed yourself – constantly fail to meet her exacting standards. Sadly, both marriage and her offspring have proved to be a serious disappointment to her. As if being let down by her husband wasn’t bad enough my sister married a man she didn’t approve of.’
‘I wasn’t even aware you had a sister.’
‘Oh yes, but she emigrated to Australia, taking the view that relations with Mother might improve if she lived as far away as possible.’
‘Somewhat drastic. Did it work?’
‘They haven’t corresponded since.’
Livia was beginning to understand the emptiness she sensed in him, which perhaps caused the bleakness in those haunting
eyes, the careworn lines, and the sadness of his demeanour. For all his wealth, he’d found no more happiness in family life than had she. ‘You must miss her.’
‘Every day. Catriona was great fun but I doubt I shall ever see her again.’
‘Oh, don’t say that. You might manage to visit her one day.’
‘A nice thought, but I think it unlikely. Australia is the other side of the world, after all.’
There was a small silence while they both considered the difficulties. ‘Life can be a terrible muddle. But at least she is happy with the man she loves.’ A question had been hovering in the back of Livia’s mind all afternoon, and now it popped out, almost of its own volition. ‘Do you think I’m wrong not to marry Jack?’
He stopped walking to gaze down into her eyes while he considered his answer. The late afternoon sun slanted golden shafts of light through crimson and saffron leaves, capturing the pair of them as if for a picture taken by one of the new-fangled cameras. ‘I think you should take your time before making such an important decision.’
‘But you do consider I’m wrong to live with him, that I’m now a fallen woman?’ Livia drily remarked, knowing she had no right to ask, but somehow his answer was important to her.
‘I think you’re a very intriguing woman.’
She felt a tremor stir deep inside. Was she fooling herself to think he’d actually chosen his answer with care?
He was grinning down at her now. ‘I liked the way you stood up to Mother. Few people manage to do it so well.’
‘I was very rude.’
‘You were wonderful.’ He’d made no move, and neither had she, both seemingly entranced with simply standing looking at each other, yet for some reason Livia felt as if they’d edged closer. ‘You were right when you said that marriage can sometimes put shackles on a woman. Catriona eloped because she had no wish to marry the elderly professional gentleman our mother considered more suitable for her. She was in love, and women should indeed have rights. I’m all in favour of it.’
‘Well, that’s something at least we agree upon, Mr Grayson.’
‘I rather think we agree on many things, but you could call me Matthew. Are we not friends now?’
A leaf floated down onto her head, catching in
her hair, and he picked it off with gentle fingers, his eyes riveted upon hers. He was so close she could feel the heat from his body, hear the beat of his heart – or was that her own pounding loudly in her ears? She knew he was going to kiss her, and that she wanted his kiss more than anything. He dipped his head to hers, blocking out the sun.
‘Ah, there you are, thought you’d fallen in the dratted lake.’
They leapt apart as if stung. ‘Oh, my goodness, Jack, you gave me quite a start. I didn’t hear you coming.’ Livia ran to give him a kiss on his cheek.
Jack’s wide grin slipped a little as he looked from one to the other, as if sensing some awkwardness between them. ‘Everything all right? Nothing wrong, is there? Thought I’d come and meet you, make sure you hadn’t got lost.’
Grayson calmly remarked, ‘I’m sorry for monopolising your fiancée all afternoon. It was most remiss of me.’
Livia slipped her arm into Jack’s. ‘I think it’s time we accepted Mr Grayson’s – sorry – Matthew’s kind offer of a lift home. We’ve had a most productive afternoon. I don’t think there’s any further business we need discuss.’
‘Nothing that can’t wait for another day,’ Grayson agreed, and the glance they exchanged for some reason brought a blush to Livia’s cheeks.
Mercy did not take kindly to the written list which was now presented to her each morning, and made her resentment clearly felt. She could read perfectly well, having been taught at a young age by her mother, but hated Ella’s fondness for long words such as ‘preserves’. ‘Jam’ would be so much simpler. Then there was ‘disinfect’ instead of ‘clean’, ‘agitate’ instead of ‘churn’, and ‘constitutional’ for ‘walk’. Why did the woman always have to show off her greater knowledge?
It had to be said, though, that Ella seemed in a much more cheerful mood these days, and the two sisters made some sort of reconciliation. Even Mercy felt that maybe she’d gone too far by falling into fisticuffs, and willingly submitted to a kiss and hug from Ella.
‘There, now we’re all friends again,’ Ella said, looking pleased. ‘I know you’re a bit mixed up still, but we all love you. Always remember that, Mercy.’
Mercy felt such an odd sensation of warmth at these words that she succumbed to a second hug. If only she could reconcile herself to her new situation. Perhaps then it wouldn’t feel so strange to be a part of this family she’d vowed to hate.
At least Ella no longer encouraged George to linger over a chat. Not that that stopped him from playing the fool and trying to make her laugh. He still followed the woman about like a devoted slave, when he wasn’t engaged in some chore or other with Tom Mounsey, ignoring Mercy more and more. So much so that the love-making they’d once enjoyed almost nightly beneath the eves of their loft had fallen to once in two weeks if she was lucky.
Mercy blamed Ella entirely for this too.
One morning, she was crossing the yard to hang out the washing when Mercy saw the two men arguing quite fiercely. Tom kept putting a hand on George’s shoulder but George shook it off. They were often that way together, prickly and difficult. She wondered why they couldn’t be friends.
Tom Mounsey was only a few years older than herself, Mercy guessed, perhaps twenty-five
and Todd Farm was only one of several he worked on. He would happily lend a hand to any task, whether it was milking the cows, injecting the sheep, or mending the barn roof. He’d helped Amos put in a new boiler and numerous other jobs over the years to improve the state of the farmhouse.
Mercy had never paid him much attention before, but he was really quite attractive. Tall and blond, and very good-looking, almost beautiful in a way, like one of those Viking warriors who had once populated these northern parts. Really rather nice, save for the dry warts that crusted his fingers, and the fact he was so pushy.
starting to flirt with
, Mercy noticed that Tom began to pay her rather a lot of attention. He would often hang around watching her work, or come to sit with her on a drystone wall whenever she went outside for a breath of fresh air. He was forever asking questions, particularly about George. Where had they worked before? Was George local? Had he always been in farming? And Tom loved to tease her, telling her she was too young to be a married woman, asking if George really was her husband. He wanted to know where they’d met, which church they’d been married in, and did she truly love him.
‘Of course I love him,’ she would stoutly
respond. ‘We’re husband and wife. Why would you doubt it?’
‘Because you’re far too good for him, and too pretty. You make a handsome couple though, the pair of you,’ he added, the young man’s eyes following George as he strolled across the yard. ‘Your husband is a fine figure of a man,’ and then turning back to Mercy with a winning smile, said, ‘And very lucky to have you. He doesn’t deserve you.’
Mercy found herself blushing even as she refuted this claim. ‘He is handsome is my George, at least I think so.’ She loved to call him that – ‘my George’ – but grew tired of answering so many questions. Nor did she fancy Tom Mounsey one little bit. Even so, a little mild flirtation would be no bad thing if it could spark a bit of jealousy in her husband and persuade him to stop drooling over Ella.
Making life difficult for Ella had backfired somewhat, and trying to attract Amos had been a fruitless exercise. Now Mercy began to throw the young man coquettish little smiles whenever he glanced her way. She would lean close as they sat on the cobbled wall together, or touch his arm in a show of intimacy as they chatted. And all the while she kept her eye on George, keen to see if he noticed how cosy they were together. Once, Tom kissed her cheek when she sneaked
him a slice of raised pork pie from the larder.
But if George noticed, or felt the slightest stirring of jealousy, he gave no indication of it. He almost made a point of avoiding the pair of them, and would go about his work tending to the horse or the cows, keeping his head down and studiously not looking in their direction. Or he would go off to tend to the sheep without a backward glance and be away for hours, almost deliberately leaving them alone together. Yet when he and Mercy were on their own in the loft over the barn where they slept, he remained as jovial and good-natured as ever.
‘Did you see how Tom followed me about all afternoon?’ she challenged him one evening as they were preparing for bed. Mercy slowly peeled off her clothes as seductively as she could, hoping to excite him. Unfortunately, George wasn’t particularly romantic and rarely paid attention to these ploys. Nor did he go in for much foreplay.
‘I’ve been busy today, I didn’t notice.’
‘Anyone would think he was smitten.’ Mercy giggled as she folded up her clothes and laid them on a chair. ‘He’s a bit odd, don’t you think? Allus asking questions.’ She left her stockings on under her nightgown, as it was cold in the loft with winter coming on. George, she thought, might enjoy taking them off for her later.
‘Aye, he is a bit of a rum cove.’
‘Happen he fancies me.’
George laughed. ‘I don’t reckon you need worry about him ravaging you. I can’t quite make him out but I reckon he’s harmless enough. Take no notice.’
‘I didn’t say I was worried. I just wondered if he fancied me, that’s all.’
‘Don’t talk daft. Anyroad, it’s time to stop talking and blow out the candle, I’m fair wore out.’
Mercy quietly obeyed, smarting a little over how George had so easily dismissed the idea of someone fancying her. Did he think her too plain to attract a man? Why didn’t he care? What was wrong with her? Why wasn’t he just the teeniest bit jealous? He was soon snoring his head off, and there’d be no love-making tonight either. It was all most frustrating.
It was Saturday afternoon and Ella had driven into Kendal to do a little shopping and call upon her sister at the store. Despite the apparent rapprochement, Mercy continued to be withdrawn and prickly, and, as always, Ella took her problems to Livia. She was also eager to tell her the good news, and Livia was thrilled to see her.
‘I’m so delighted for you. I rather fancy myself as Aunt Livia. Sounds rather grand, don’t you think?’ she said, laughing as she kissed her
sister’s cheek. ‘Who’d have thought my lovely scatterbrained Ella could ever be a mother?’
‘It can’t be any harder than being a stepmother, can it? I adore my stepchildren and I flatter myself they’re rather fond of me now, even Mary. She was the most difficult to win round since, as the eldest, she grieved the most for her mother. Even so, she was easy by comparison with a resentful half-sister determined to make my life a complete misery.’
‘Oh dear, what has Mercy been up to now?’
‘Only picked a fight with me, that’s all.’
Livia was shocked. ‘You don’t mean an actual physical fight, surely?’
Ella gave a rueful smile. ‘I’ll admit it was partly my fault. I don’t have enough patience with her. We just can’t seem to get on. She gets so jealous whenever I speak to George, accusing me of flirting with him when I don’t mean to at all. And then with my being pregnant, albeit secretly, I probably ask her to do too much. I don’t blame her entirely, Livvy, I blame myself.’
Struggling to understand this garbled tale, Livia gently tried to calm her sister as Ella started to cry. ‘It’s not your fault at all. Of course Mercy should help more, there’s nothing unreasonable about that. Maybe it would be wise to tell her that you’re pregnant, then she’d understand. I love her dearly, but she really must control that
temper of hers, and rid herself of this huge chip she carries on her shoulder.’
Ella accepted the handkerchief Livia offered and dabbed at her tears. ‘I spoke to Mrs Jepson the other day and she recommended I give her a list of tasks and leave her to get on with them.’
‘Unfortunately, it hasn’t gone down too well so far.’
Livia shook her head in despair. Solving her sister’s problems was something she’d been doing all her life, and it seemed this would continue despite her having a husband now. Not that Livia minded. She might have failed Maggie but she certainly wasn’t going to fail Ella.
‘Will you speak to her. I’m sure she’ll listen to you.
‘Of course, just the first chance I get. The important thing is that you mustn’t upset yourself. Think of the baby. No more fights. No arguments. You must stay calm and leave everything to me.’
‘I know it’s not fair to dump this problem on you, but—’
‘Whyever not? That’s what big sisters are for,’ Livia assured her, then enveloped Ella in a warm hug when she started to cry all over again. Oh, but she was tired, feeling a great weariness upon her. Life seemed to be frantic at the moment,
beset with difficulties. On the one hand she had Jack’s obstinacy and hurt pride over her alleged neglect of him, and when she’d asked Grayson if she might now live at home, he’d been entirely uncooperative, accusing her of reneging on her deal to learn the business. Then there was the resentment from her fellow shop girls, and now problems with Ella and Mercy. Not to mention simply coping with a new routine.
‘She’s here with me in town. I brought her specially, hoping you would agree.’
Livia was somewhat startled by this. ‘Oh, here in the store, do you mean?’
Ella nodded. ‘She’s downstairs, waiting in the back lobby. You won’t say anything about the baby, will you? It’s supposed to be a secret. Amos and I have decided not to tell anyone else just yet.’
‘Of course not, if you don’t want me to, although mightn’t it help to persuade Mercy to do a bit more around the place?’
Ella’s expression turned mulish. ‘She should do that anyway, for what we are paying her. Can you try to get that through to her, do you think?’
Livia sighed and agreed she would do her very best.
The meeting did not start well. Mercy was in the stock room watching two boys unpack a delivery
of skeins of wool and silks for the haberdashery department. The girl greeted Livia with a scowl as she smilingly approached with arms outstretched. Resisting the warm hug offered, she said, ‘I got bored with waiting in that miserable back passage. I’ve been left kicking my heels for nigh on half an hour. Obviously I’m not considered worthy of being invited upstairs to share in your sisterly chit-chat.’
Livia could hardly blame her for feeling a bit put out. It was somewhat tactless of Ella to abandon her, even if she had wanted a private word with her sister. Livia considered excusing her own bad manners by admitting she hadn’t known Mercy had arrived, but then realised this would only put Ella in a worse light. ‘I’m sorry to have kept you waiting. Things are pretty frantic at the moment. It’s lovely to see you looking so well, Mercy dear.’
‘By a miracle I am well. I get precious little time to rest or go anywhere. It’s work, work, work, from morning till night on that flipping farm. And not a soul to talk to.’
Livia felt a nudge of sympathy, not much caring for the quiet of the fells herself. ‘It can’t be easy adapting to a rural environment. Perhaps you should ask Amos if you could come into town a bit more, learn to drive the trap so you can help fetch goods into market.’
‘Huh, madam likes to do that herself.’
Livia frowned. ‘If by “madam” you mean Ella, then call her by her proper name. She is your sister, after all.’
‘You’d never think so to see the way she treats me.’
‘Perhaps we should have a little talk about that. I’ve got a bit of time over my dinner break so while Ella is off shopping, why don’t you and I take a little walk.’
They walked along by the River Kent, the heartbeat of the town, and its engine as the river fuelled its woollen and carpet mills, its dye works and snuff manufacturers. It had been used by weavers to wash their cloth, and by skinners to cure leather, for as long as anyone could remember. The river frequently flooded, bursting banks and bringing misery to the inhabitants of Kendal by filling nearby homes with murky water. But today, beneath a blue autumn sky, it was quiet and benign, gliding smoothly by as the two girls strolled along the river path in the direction of the weir near Stramongate Bridge.
‘Why cannot you two get on?’ Livia gently enquired. ‘I hear you and Ella had a bit of a set to.’
‘She started it.’
Livia decided not to enter into this argument. Much as she adored her sister, she knew Ella
could be a touch supercilious at times, which might well have put Mercy’s back up. But then Mercy could be exceedingly stubborn. ‘It really isn’t important who started the fight, what worries me is that you had it at all. You mustn’t be jealous of Ella. She and Amos adore each other, and she hasn’t the least intention of stealing George from you. You must believe her on that.’
‘She’s allus making eyes at him.’
‘I don’t think she means to. Perhaps he teases her, and she laughs at his jokes. He’s quite a joker, your George.’
Mercy didn’t argue the point, but scowled all the more.
‘You know that we’re doing our utmost to make you feel a part of our family and eradicate the mistakes and abuses done by our father.’
Mercy remained stubbornly silent and Livia pressed on. ‘Ella works hard but has been complaining of feeling very tired of late, which worries me. You know she is trying for a baby?’ Livia felt she could at least make this point, without hinting that Ella had actually succeeded.