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Authors: Freda Lightfoot

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BOOK: Angels at War
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Connie gaped at her. ‘Are you serious?’

Livia could feel everyone’s hostile gaze upon her, refusing to believe she knew anything of what they suffered. ‘It’s true that I’ve suffered nothing like the hardships you girls have had to endure, but I’ve had problems of my own and I’m keen to help and understand. That’s one reason why I’m here with you now, and I hope you’ll come to accept and trust me.’

‘What if you’re asked to attack stores like this one, break windows or throw water or flour at folk, chain yourself to railings. How would you feel about that?’

Livia hesitated, but as she met Connie’s distrustful glare and glanced around at the cynical disbelief in the other girls’ faces she realised she had to go along with it, no matter what it cost her. ‘I’m prepared to do whatever is needed.’

The next moment she was on her feet, addressing them directly. ‘I agree we need to make the government sit up and listen. It’s long past time they made an effort to understand women’s problems. I would like to see working hours reduced, and for a woman not to lose her job when she marries, with time allowed
for her to have babies and come back to work afterwards. I’d like working conditions and wages to be improved, not to mention the state of this food,’ she quipped, which met with laughter and murmurs of approval. ‘And just as soon as we get this business back on its feet, I will start to set these things in motion here at Angel’s. But there’s a bigger battle to fight. We have to speak out for the lot of women in general, so yes, I’ll be there, Connie,’ she agreed. ‘At the front, with you.’

And the cheer that went up this time was loud enough to be heard down below in Matthew Grayson’s office. As he was putting out the gas lights and locking up, he lifted his head to listen to the sound of fists hammering on tables, feet pounding on the wooden floor, and wondered what the rumpus was all about. Someone’s birthday perhaps?

It was Connie who came to her first thing the next morning and told her, with a knowing smirk on her face, that Livia had been summoned to the manager’s office. ‘Grayson heard about your little speech last night.’ She looked almost pleased that Livia was in trouble with the manager. ‘Some of the girls sent a delegation and asked him for a rise. One girl was cheeky enough to demand time off to have a baby, while another told him the food wasn’t fit for pigs. He wants to see you right away. He’s accusing you of stirring unrest among the staff.’

‘What? I’ve never heard anything so outrageous.’

‘I told him you’d done nowt wrong,’ Connie said with a shrug, as if unwilling to admit she’d
spoken up for her. ‘Though for all I know, you may not be genuine about wanting to come to that meeting.’

‘Oh, I’m genuine all right.’ Livia was still mourning the death of her beloved sister Maggie, and longed to do something worthwhile with her life. Improving the lot of women seemed like a good place to start. ‘I have my reasons for wanting to get involved.’

‘I dare say you do, but you won’t find everyone quite so sympathetic of your views, certainly not his nibs. Have you the guts to stick by what you believe? That’s the question.’

Livia half laughed. ‘Don’t worry, once I’ve made up my mind nothing will shift me. And I shall certainly not be bullied by Grayson. He can’t possibly be as bad as my father.’

Connie regarded her out of shrewd, knowing eyes. ‘I allus thought Josiah Angel might be a hard nut to crack. He was ruthless with his staff.’

‘And even more so with his own family,’ Livia confessed.

‘I had a father much the same. Never wasted a word in an argument that his boot couldn’t solve.’

The two girls considered each other, realising they might have more in common than was apparent at first sight. ‘Right then, I’ll go and see what our Mr Grayson wants. Wish me luck.’
But if Livia thought she might almost have made a friend, Connie’s parting words destroyed that hope.

‘No need for you to fret. He can’t sack you. With us it’s a different story.’

 

Livia strode to the manager’s office and without pausing to knock, flung open the door and marched right in. Matthew Grayson was seated at what had been her father’s great walnut desk, beneath which she’d once taken refuge when looking for a letter to help in their search for Mercy. Livia remembered being absolutely terrified of her father finding her there, knowing he might take the strap to her if he did.

Now she smiled at the new incumbent, determined to look relaxed and unflustered, even though her heart was beating uncomfortably hard in her breast. How dare he call her to his office as if she were some recalcitrant child? But before she had the chance to formulate any sensible remark, he said, ‘I hear you’ve been stirring up dissent among the workers.’

It infuriated her that he did not have the courtesy to greet her, or even to glance up but just carry on writing as if she was of no account.

‘We were in fact discussing a coming meeting, one with Mrs Pankhurst as speaker, which I mean to attend with Connie, Dolly, Stella and the rest.
They’ve asked for my support and I shall give it,’ she said, with some degree of exaggeration.

‘Is this your latest campaign?’ Grayson asked, and he did look up then, glowering at her as if she were a schoolgirl brought before the headmaster for a ticking off. ‘I’m surprised you can find the time. I would’ve thought you had enough to occupy you, learning the new skills of shopkeeping, never mind taking up feminist arms against mere males.’

Fury soared through her veins. ‘We women need to stand up for our rights.’

‘I’m sure you do,’ he mildly responded, as if she’d remarked that it would be wise to wear a warm coat tomorrow as the weather might turn chill.

‘I do assure you that I have done nothing wrong.’

He carefully blotted the letter he’d finished writing, folded it and placed it neatly in a long envelope. ‘I believe I should be the judge of that, don’t you? Lecturing my staff at dinner without my permission, making promises that can’t be kept, doesn’t seem entirely appropriate for someone who has only been on the premises a matter of days.’

Livia gasped. ‘I know some of these people. They were my father’s staff.’

He smiled at her. ‘And now they are mine.’

The very calmness of his tone was making her blood boil. ‘No, they are not yours! They belong to the store, to Angel’s. And as Josiah’s daughter and the true proprietress of this business, I have the right to speak to them any time I choose.’ She didn’t feel half so confident on this score as she sounded, but he wasn’t to know that.

Grayson put down his pen, very slowly, upon the blotter. ‘Perhaps we should attempt to clarify one or two things from the start.’ He got up from behind the desk, and had the temerity to come and stand before her with his hands in his pockets, as if she were undeserving of proper respect. ‘I concede that in theory you do own this business, for the moment at least. In practice, since I have been appointed as manager, all staff matters are in my province, wouldn’t you agree?’

Livia was trying not to look at him, or to notice how devastatingly attractive his grey eyes were as he regarded her with such chilling malevolence. She kept her gaze fixed upon the desk. There was a silver paper knife, a brass ink stand, and a set of shallow drawers in which she could see stacks of paper and envelopes. It was all very neat and orderly, not at all like in her father’s day.

She lifted her gaze, ready to do battle, only to find her eyes on a level with a pulse beating at his throat. He wore a crisp white shirt open
at the neck, the sleeves rolled up above strong bare forearms. Livia could scent the exotic tang of an after-dinner cigar, and there was the day’s shadow of bristle upon his chin. He gave the impression of a busy man who cared too little about himself, a man with nothing else in his life but work. Somewhere inside was a small regret that she couldn’t be the one to make him care for something other than business, but then if she didn’t oppose him and fight for this store, who else would bother?

Nor must she ever forget that even though she’d decided against marrying Jack, for the moment at least, they were still living together as man and wife, and causing considerable gossip in the town as a consequence. She certainly couldn’t risk further scandal by allowing herself to be attracted to another man.

Livia rallied sufficiently to flick him a dismissive glance, and decided to switch arguments. ‘I feel bound to say, Mr Grayson, that it does not take an Act of Parliament to provide decent living conditions for your own workers. Have you any idea of the revolting mess that passes for the food which you expect them to eat; the fines that are imposed for no justifiable reason, and the long hours for poor pay? And before you say it, I’m fully aware that my father set the standards in this store, but that doesn’t
mean you can’t change them. I’m not surprised the staff sent a delegation.’

She was obliged to take a step backwards at the explosion of anger in response to these words.

‘No doubt at
your
instigation!’

‘And did you listen?’ she calmly responded.

‘As a matter of fact I did. Nevertheless, the issue is complex.’

‘Why?’

‘Because I say so. My pockets are not bottomless pits. I will do what I can, when I can.’

How she infuriated him. He knew full well the place needed modernising. It looked tired and dated, and was very Victorian in its values. He could afford to make changes, so why didn’t he? Grayson stifled a tired sigh. He’d had such plans, but the heart had somehow gone out of him. He’d taken on this job thinking the challenge would bring him out of himself, restore him to life, but so far it was having quite the opposite effect.

She was still on the attack. ‘In the meantime, you continue to exploit them. That doesn’t seem quite fair. Throwing money about is not the only way of dealing with a problem. Better communication between employer and employees can work wonders.’

‘When I require your advice, Miss Angel, I
will ask for it.’ His mouth tightened into a hard line. ‘Confound it, can’t you see this is no place for a young lady such as yourself.’

She looked at him in surprise. ‘I don’t see why.’

‘This is a tough business, and you’ve led a sheltered life. These girls come from poor homes where they were often starved or beaten. They’re not polite, genteel gels brought up to pass plates of cakes and do embroidery.’

Livia could scarcely believe what she was hearing. ‘You know nothing about me, or how I was brought up.’

‘It’s fairly obvious. No doubt you had servants at your beck and call, pretty clothes to wear and garden parties to attend. But these are working girls, many with family problems,’ he repeated with pedantic patience, ‘and you should never make promises to them that you can’t keep.’

Livia could not deny that garden parties and servants had featured in her life at Angel House. But it was what went on behind closed doors after the guests had gone that was the problem. Not that she had any intention of disclosing family secrets to this obnoxious man. Her views on business was all that need concern him.

‘I too have a living to earn, Mr Grayson, and intend to keep every one of those promises. Let us hope you can do the same.’ And spinning on
her heel, she stormed out of the office. She was halfway up the stairs when she heard the door slam.

 

Mercy believed that all her problems stemmed from having been abandoned by her father as a child, and when, after her mother’s death, she’d gone to him seeking help, Josiah Angel had locked her in the workhouse. Despite all of that she had to admit that she’d never lacked for a mother’s love, even if it was a hand-to-mouth existence. It had been Florrie’s view on life that being poor didn’t mean you couldn’t love your children and do your best for them. Mercy’s own strength and ability to cope must be down to her. If she possessed any confidence and belief in herself, then it must be as a consequence of all the love and devotion showered upon her by her loving mother. Rarely a day went by when she didn’t think of her, wondering if the pain of loss would ever go away.

But if her father had left his wife and married her lovely mother, they would have enjoyed a life of luxury instead of penury. Poor Florrie might never have got consumption if she’d had a decent place to live instead of having to work all hours on a loom in mucky old Fellside. And she’d still be alive today.

It was hard not to feel bitter towards that
tyrant and his spoilt daughters. Mercy couldn’t help nurturing a resentment against Ella for her apparent good fortune. She was one of the rich Angels girls and had never wanted for anything. Now she was sucking up to George, ready to steal him too. By way of retaliation, Mercy reverted to her favourite sport of making life as difficult as possible for this half-sister of hers.

‘Didn’t you bring in the washing when I asked you to, Mercy?’

‘Sorry, I forgot,’ Mercy muttered, turning her face away to hide her smile.

‘Now it’s raining and we’ll have to drape them all over the kitchen to get them dry.’

‘Oh dear,’ Mercy said, not in the least concerned.

‘Jump to it, before the heavens really open.’

Mercy sidled out into the yard, scuffing her feet as she walked and slowly began to unpeg the sheets from the line.

Next she got a telling off for being late for milking, then for wasting time plaiting straw into a dolly for Tilda when she should have been mixing the feed for the calves.

It made her laugh to see how furious these small rebellions made Ella, and in the days following Mercy found it highly amusing to see her half-sister getting into a lather over something as daft as not stoking the boiler, or scalding the
butter dishes. And as often as possible Mercy would escape work altogether. She’d snatch a little nap in the sun, paddle in the river, or simply hide from Ella’s scolding. What a bossy madam she was turning into. What right did she have to tell her what to do?

Part of Mercy’s plan was to somehow make George jealous, which might serve to curb the attentions he paid to Ella. She’d tried flirting with Amos before, and now did so again. She worked really hard at it, fluttering her lashes, encouraging him to talk about cows and sheep, his favourite topics of conversation. She tried everything she could think of but in the end gave up, knowing she was wasting her time. Amos Todd was a devoted husband with eyes only for his wife, which made Mercy hate Ella all the more.

 

Ella had long since grown tired of Mercy’s obstinacy, her sulks and complaints and refusal to work. How she missed old Mrs Rackett. Difficult and awkward as the old woman had been at times, and most unwelcoming when Ella had first arrived in the dale, in the end she’d taught Ella all she knew about running a farmhouse and a dairy. But she’d gone down with pneumonia last winter and now lay in St Cuthbert’s churchyard, and as there was a great deal of work to be done on a
farm, Mercy must be made to do her bit. Oh, but how Ella hated to nag. Why couldn’t the girl just get on with the job and do it without any fuss?

‘How many times have I asked you to peel those potatoes?’ Ella snapped one morning, finally losing her temper. ‘The men will be in for their dinners soon and it’s not going to be ready.’

‘Do it yourself then if you’re not satisfied.’ Mercy flounced out of the kitchen and marched away across the farmyard towards the meadow. This time Ella had no intention of allowing her to get away with it, and ran after her.

‘Get back in here this minute, madam. It’s time you learnt to do as you’re told.’

Mercy turned to face her, hands on hips. ‘And who’s going to make me? You? That’s a laugh.’

‘You’re paid to do a job, and I mean to see that you do it. You can stop this perpetual sulking and start earning the good wages we pay you.’

‘Good wages my foot. You pay us peanuts.’

‘We pay the going rate for farm labour, plus your keep on top. You’ve no room to complain, but I certainly have. You can stop making sheep’s eyes at Amos for a start,’ Ella warned, wagging a finger in the other girl’s face. ‘He’s mine, so lay off.’

BOOK: Angels at War
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