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Authors: Freda Lightfoot

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BOOK: Angels at War
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‘So what would you do?’ Mercy was driven to ask, her curiosity getting the better of her.

‘I’m to be a shop girl. I shall work long hours, no doubt earn very little money, and eat in a huge dining room along with all the other employees.’

A stunned silence followed this news, then Ella kissed Livia on both cheeks, smiling delightedly. ‘Well, I think that’s rather wonderful. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with hard work. I learnt that from Amos, and I have to admit that difficult as it was at first, there’s enormous satisfaction when you eventually succeed. I have every faith, Livvy, that you will too.’

‘So despite growing up posh in a grand house, you’ll have to learn to bow and scrape like the
rest of us? That’s rich, that is.’ Mercy said, and gave a whoop of laughter. ‘At least you’ll be fed a lot better than the starvation rations we got at the workhouse.’

‘Mercy dear …’ Ella chided, adopting her ‘let’s be reasonable’ voice. ‘I’m truly sorry our father incarcerated you in the workhouse. Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do to change that fact now. It happened. You were locked up, ill treated, half starved, and we’re very, very, sorry. But it wasn’t our fault. We found you in the end, thank goodness, and we’ve welcomed you into our family. What more can we do to make amends?’

Mercy folded her lips into a firm line, stubbornly making no response.

Livia sighed. She knew this to be an ongoing argument, and was weary of it. It wasn’t going to be easy bringing friendship between these two, perhaps impossible. She looked from one to the other in despair, and couldn’t help noting how alike both girls were. Even Ella’s bright social smile had now fallen into a pout which very much resembled Mercy’s own. ‘This is past history, isn’t it time we put all of that behind us and looked forward rather than back?’

‘All right for you to say,’ Mercy grumbled. ‘Since the workhouse is not summat you’ve
experienced, nor ever will, so why should you trouble your head over it?’

Ella’s patience finally snapped. ‘Oh, for goodness sake. Has it never occurred to you that Livvy and I might have suffered a few hardships of our own? Do you imagine it was easy living at Angel House with Josiah for a father? And we lost our beloved sister in the most horrible way. Amos, too, has suffered. His first wife died, his daughter caught pneumonia, and farming is a hard life – I can vouch for that. Everyone has their cross to bear. You just have to pick it up and bear it.’

Silence followed this impassioned speech, and in an effort to break it, Livia continued with her tale in falsely bright tones. ‘I’m so excited. This is but the beginning, you understand. I shall need to learn the business from the bottom to the top, and inside out, before I can even begin to think of taking over. I see that now, though it would be easier to admit that fact to anyone other than the arrogant Matthew Grayson. But he’ll soon learn that my ideas are worth listening to. I mean to bring the whole store up to date, and I dare say I could get you a special discount, Mercy, if you like.’

‘I don’t ask for no favours,’ she sniffed. ‘I manage as best I can, but then I’ve never had your advantages. What you’ve never had, you never miss.’

‘I’m sure we can stretch a point on the relatively simple matter of a coat.’

Ella said, ‘Didn’t your mother used to work at the store? At least for a while.’

‘Until she had me and became a whore, you mean?’

‘That’s not what I said.’

‘You didn’t have to.’ Mercy’s voice rose several decibels. ‘She might’ve been your pa’s bit on the side, but she were a lady were my ma, so don’t you dare look down yer bleeding noses at her.’

‘Please do keep your voice down. People are looking.’

‘Let ’em look. I’ve nothing to be ashamed of.’ Mercy jumped to her feet, almost upsetting her teacup and causing even more heads to turn. ‘My lovely mam were worth two of you lot, and ten of that devil who abandoned her.’ Whereupon she stormed from the café in a fury, leaving an entire audience gaping after her.

Livia quietly groaned. ‘Sometimes, Ella, I think you actively enjoy seeking ways to annoy her. Why on earth mention the poor girl’s mother? You know how sensitive she is on the subject.’

Ella was on her feet in a flash. ‘And maybe she deliberately seeks out ways to annoy me, by not pulling her weight on the farm and constantly making up to my husband.’

‘Don’t be foolish. Amos has eyes for no one but you.’

‘I know that, but it doesn’t stop
her
from plaguing me by trying. And
she
could probably give him half a dozen children.’ At which point she too burst into tears and fled.

Livia sank her chin into her hands on a heavy sigh, and wondered if all families could possibly be as difficult as her own.

 

When Monday came, Livia rose early, not wanting to be late on her first morning. She and Jack had made love last night, by way of farewell, and she’d again begged him to understand. Jack had taken her fiercely, in a fury of passion which at any other time would have excited and delighted her, but somehow served only to fuel the sense of unease that had settled in the pit of her stomach. Did he feel this was the only way he could possess and control her?

They’d barely spoken this morning as she’d packed her carpet bag and explained about the food she’d left in the larder and the lamb stew he could heat up on the stove, which would keep him going for the next day or two.

‘After that I fend for myself, do I?’

‘I’ll be home on Thursday.’

‘I’ll try and remember.’

There’d been little show of affection as they’d
gone their separate ways, each too stubborn to break the coolness that had fallen between them. Would he even be there on Thursday? Surely he wasn’t threatening to actually leave her? Jack Flint was a proud man, and riddled with resentment against the so-called ruling classes. Being his wife would never have been easy, but could their love survive now that she’d rejected his offer? Oh, she really did hope so.

Livia was shown to her quarters by Dolly, a tousle-headed urchin who couldn’t have been a day over fifteen, and whose knees seemed to be knocking at the prospect of sharing quarters with the proprietress herself.

‘I can’t think you’ll be very comfortable with us girls,’ she kept saying. ‘You’d be far better off at home, madam, I’m sure.’

Livia smiled. ‘Please don’t call me that. If I’m to be one of the shop girls, you must call me by my name. It’s Livia, or Livvy if you prefer.’

The young girl blushed to the roots of her carrot-coloured hair. ‘Ooh, I couldn’t do that. T’wouldn’t be right.’

‘Yes, you can. Go on, say it. Say, “Hello Livvy, I’m pleased to meet you.”’

‘Ooer,’ she said, holding her breath while she silently tried out the name inside her own head. Then, ‘Hello … Livvy, pleased to meet yer.’

Livia grinned. ‘There you are, that’s grand. I hope you and I are going to be great friends, Dolly.’

As they were talking, they climbed a flight of rickety stairs and emerged into a long dark room. Such light as could penetrate the two narrow windows set high in the rafters was filtered by the grime that coated them. As Livia looked down the length of it, she was frankly appalled by what met her eyes. The floorboards were bare and not particularly clean, with not even a rug beside the closely packed beds that stretched the length of the wall.

‘Where do you bathe?’ Livia enquired, glancing about, for she could see no further door that might lead to a bathroom.

‘Oh, we has a bath every night, if we fancies it, with scented soap, hot water and warm towels,’ the girl drily remarked. ‘So long as you can fit yerself into one of them basins.’

‘Ah, I see. Of course.’ Livia noticed a couple of washstands with bowls and jugs, which seemed entirely inadequate to the task of providing facilities for twenty or thirty girls.

Dolly dusted off a black uniform identical to her own before handing it over. Livia wondered
how many other girls had worn it before herself. The skirt and blouse looked ancient as there was a greenish tinge to them, and for all they were supposed to be clean, they appeared in dire need of a good wash. Livia said nothing but made a mental note to take the uniform home and wash it herself at the first opportunity.

‘Sorry, but your bed’s next to the lavvy,’ Dolly was saying. ‘Handy if you need to go during the night, although it stinks a bit as it’s the only one. Course, you can at least be first of a morning, which is an advantage.’

Horrified by these unsavoury details, Livia scarcely took in the hasty instructions the young girl was giving her about how she would find clean sheets and pillow cases in the linen room along the landing. ‘How do you keep warm?’ Livia asked as she fingered one of the thin blankets and thought of the encroaching winter. She saw no pipes, no stove, or any sign of heating in the room.

‘I’d recommend you buy yerself a hot-water bottle, or yer toes’ll drop off.’ The girl suddenly seemed in a tearing hurry to depart. ‘You can unpack this evening after work. There’s no time now. When you’ve changed, come straight downstairs.’

‘Changed?’

‘Into your uniform.’ Dolly jerked her head at
the folded garments Livia still held in her arms.

‘Oh, I see, yes, thank you.’ Livia stifled a shudder and brightly enquired, ‘When do I start?’

‘Half an hour ago so be quick about it, I can’t afford another fine.’

‘Fine? I don’t understand.’

‘No time to explain now. Just get a move on, miss.’

Swallowing the lump of panic that had risen in her throat, Livia peeled off her smart navy suit, which earlier she’d thought ideally suitable for her first day, and began to hurriedly dress in the long black stuff skirt and blouse. It felt rough and scratchy against her skin, and some of her initial excitement dissipated as she thought what a sad state everything was in, even the facilities. She could blame no one for that sorry state of affairs but her own father. Josiah Angel would never think to waste money on providing decent living conditions for the staff; not while he had his own pleasures to pay for.

Was she mad to abandon all hopes of marriage and a happy life with Jack, for this? What was she thinking of?

But her decision wasn’t just about fulfilling her own dreams, fiercely ambitious though she may be. It was about securing a safe and secure future for girls like Dolly, and all the other
staff who depended upon the success of Angel’s Department Store for a living. Livia still felt she’d let Maggie down, and was determined not to make that mistake ever again.

 

The milking was over and Mercy was cleaning out the milking parlour. It was a job she loathed. The cows stank and she had to swill the muck they left behind with water, usually soaking herself to the skin in the process, and today was a cold October day, with a bitter wind whistling through the dale. Mercy hated the country. With only the mooing of cows, bleating of sheep, and the odd noisy cockerel for company, the silence was unendurable. She couldn’t stand it.

‘Haven’t you finished that scrubbing yet?’ Ella’s voice called to her from across the yard.

‘What’s wrong with her?’ George asked, as he shooed the last stragglers out. ‘Not like the missus to be so snappy.’

Mercy pulled a face. ‘It’s the baby thing, must’ve had another false alarm.’

‘Ah, I hadn’t realised. Poor Mrs Todd. I’ll go and cheer her up once I’ve shifted this lot. Cush, cush.’ He flapped his hands at the cows to urge them in the right direction.

‘It’s nowt to do with you,’ Mercy called after him, but she knew he wouldn’t listen to her. He never did.

She watched as her husband ushered the cows into the bottom meadow then fastened the gate and strolled over to talk to Ella as she pegged out the clothes. He at once fell into his usual routine of teasing and joking, and in no time at all had her laughing as if she hadn’t a care in the world. Mercy’s stomach tightened with jealousy.

George was good-looking and likeable, and couldn’t resist putting on an act, particularly to a grateful audience. Mercy had grown used to his pranks and jokes at the workhouse, how he’d pretended to be an imbecile so that Nurse Bathurst would allow him some treat or other. He could as easily leave a mess of cold porridge or a red rose from the garden in her desk drawer, feigning ignorance if she asked whether he knew anything about it, yet always flattering and making the woman blush like a girl, even though everyone else was terrified of her.

When they’d first come to Kentmere, she’d watched him flirt with Ella in exactly the same way, complimenting her on her dress, or the way she was wearing her hair. ‘Goodness,’ he said to her on one occasion. ‘I believe you have dimples in your chin. How delightful!’ and the silly woman had actually blushed. It was old Bathurst all over again.

Mercy had been obliged to turn away in
case she should spoil his game by bursting out laughing.

It was perfectly obvious that Ella was easy prey to flattery, and didn’t realise that none of it was sincere.

George had recognised her vulnerability, her innate loneliness and desperate need for attention. He’d tell her how beautiful she looked of a morning, even when she was pale and tired with anxious bruises beneath her eyes; would offer to carry the water for her, or stack the logs. He’d flatter her about her cooking, no matter if there was gristle in the stew or her cakes had gone flat. And he’d stop whatever job he was doing in an instant simply to talk to her, and at a time when her own husband was largely ignoring her.

Mercy had once engineered it so that Amos had caught the pair of them together. She’d done it out of jealousy and vengeance, even though she’d known it was no more than a game on George’s part, and that Ella was innocent. But his wife had looked so guilty Amos had been devastated, and their marriage had suffered as a consequence.

Now Mercy had grown weary of the game. She wanted George all to herself, and had no wish to share him with anyone, least of all her half-sister. She no longer liked to see Ella
smiling at him, nor laughing at his antics.

He was capering about even now, taking Ella in his arms and waltzing her round the yard, then having to extricate them both from a tangle of damp sheets, laughing as he smoothed back her hair, dabbing at her wet cheeks with a sparkling white handkerchief. What a flirt he was. Forever making an exhibition of himself, wanting to be amusing and entertaining. How he loved to be outrageous.

There were some things about Ella that Mercy admired. In particular, the fact that she’d come to terms with her tough life on the farm. She now seemed to love the dale and her husband with equal measure. But Mercy felt no affinity with her half-sister, for all they were alike in many ways.

They both had the same oval face, the same pointed chin, finely winged brows and long fair hair that marked all the Angel sisters. They each possessed a rosebud mouth with a tendency to pout, but where Ella’s eyes were grey-green, Mercy’s were more a turquoise-blue, as if you were looking into a deep ocean. Ella was vain, flighty, and empty-headed, while Mercy had enjoyed little opportunity to indulge in fantasies. But they both had the same spirit of survival.

Watching her now cavorting with George, Mercy burnt with hot jealousy. Look at him,
pretending to swing from the branch of that old ash tree as if he were a monkey, instead of getting on with the chores. If she neglected her duties as he was doing, there would be a real scolding, Mercy was certain of it.

‘Stop flirting with Ella,’ she warned him that night as they prepared for bed. ‘If the master sees you playing up to his missus again, he’ll have your guts for garters. Unless you want to lose this job and go back to Kendal. That’d suit me fine, but mebbe not you, eh?’

George chuckled as he pulled her down onto the bed and began to unbutton her blouse and draw off her skirt. ‘You wouldn’t be a tiny bit jealous, would you?’

‘Of course not!’ Mercy protested, slapping ineffectually at his questing hands, even as she succumbed to his kisses. Oh, but she was. How could she ever be sure of him when he behaved like a libertine, demanding attention which sad and lonely women were only too willing to give?

 

‘Do not, on any account, speak to a customer unless she speaks to you first. You may politely discuss the Sunday sermon but never venture into anything more controversial, such as the nature of religion. Certainly not politics, and always treat a customer with the greatest possible respect and deference.’

‘Yes, Miss Caraway.’ Gentian blue eyes glimmered with suppressed amusement. This was going to be such fun!

As the daughter of Josiah Angel, the store’s owner, Livia had known Miss Caraway for some years, and was all too aware of the woman’s reputation among the staff. The supervisor was responsible for the welfare and living quarters of the female shop assistants and for their general discipline, while Mr Tolson, the chief floorwalker, was in charge of all the men. Each floorwalker was responsible for directing customers to the right counter on his floor. Despite Dolly’s warning that Miss Caraway ruled with a rod of iron, the prospect of working beneath this woman raised no alarms in Livia. What, in all honesty, could she do? She could hardly sack the person who had inherited the store, could she?

‘What if a customer should require use of our “facilities”?’ It was a deliberately mischievous question as Livia knew perfectly well that Angel’s Department Store did not possess a washroom, let alone a lavatory. Facilities for the staff might be grossly inadequate, but were non-existent for customers.

Miss Caraway looked utterly outraged by the very idea. ‘A lady would never stoop to use such facilities outside of her own home. Far too shameful.’

‘I don’t see why. I’ve always thought a powder room would encourage customers to spend longer in the store, and therefore more money. Angel’s needs to modernise, do you not think so, Miss Caraway, if we are to successfully embrace the new century?’

There was the smallest tightening of the older woman’s mouth, aware as she was of exactly whom she was addressing.

‘I do hope, Miss Lavinia, that you and I are going to get along. I shall do my utmost to accommodate your particular needs, but you must appreciate I am under instruction to treat you exactly the same as the other shop girls in every respect.’

‘Of course.’ Livia met the older woman’s frowning glare with a frank and open smile. ‘We agreed that from the start, did we not? I would expect nothing less.’

‘We did indeed. Therefore, your opinions are of no consequence. Staff views on such matters are not required by those of us who are obliged to deal with the reality of life in a busy shop.’ She folded her hands at her waist. ‘Now, assistants are generally addressed by their surnames, but we must make an exception in your case, I dare say. Would Miss Lavinia suit?’

‘Perfectly.’

She was then thoroughly inspected to check
that her uniform was correct, that she wore no jewellery, that her petticoat did not trail and her black boots were highly polished. Black lace mittens were
de rigour
for female assistants, and her hair had to be scraped tightly back into a bun in the nape of her neck, so that not a single tendril could stray out of place.

Her duties were even now being carefully outlined to her, together with the list of rules and fines that Dolly had mentioned earlier.

‘Fines instituted in this establishment are as follows,’ Miss Caraway informed her, reciting them off by heart. ‘For gossiping, and suchlike reprehensible behaviour – threepence. For not returning string, paper or scissors to their appointed place, or for neglecting to date a bill for a customer – twopence. Sixpence for being late on duty, and for possession of a
romance
– fourpence. I will not allow such pernicious material on the premises where young gels are present. Rudeness or insolence warrants instant dismissal.’

Livia wondered if she would remember half these rules.

Her hours of work, she was informed, would be from eight in the morning until seven each evening. Oh, but the silly fines apart, it all sounded such fun. She could hardly wait to get going and be allowed to actually serve a customer.

BOOK: Angels at War
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