Authors: Anna Jacobs
Tags: #Historical Fiction/Romance
It was Penelope who spoke this time. “I used to do this with my fiancé for a while, teach ordinary people to read, I mean. I found it very rewarding and would be delighted to do it again.”
He looked at her in surprise. “You’re engaged?”
“Not now. John died.”
“It’s all right. It was over two years ago.”
He waited a moment then stood up. “Well, then, it seems we’re in agreement, so let’s go and see Ben.”
Outside the sun had already set but next to the house was a big square building, its windows brightly lit, revealing large machines and people toiling around them. “I spin cotton,” Mr Wright said, noticing them staring, “or rather my machines do. And I live next to my mill in case I’m needed. If you come to Tapton, I’ll show you round the place one day.”
Without waiting for an answer he led them across the square, which was lit by lanterns hanging outside the shops and inn.
“That’s Seaton’s,” he waved a hand towards another brightly-lit building looming behind the houses on the opposite side of the square.
Martha noticed that it wasn’t as big as Mr Wright’s mill, but it still seemed large to her and was just as brightly lit.
“And at the other end of the town is Brindley’s. You can just see the lights from his place over there.” He pointed to their right.
By the light of a nearby lantern Martha could see how tight his expression had become at the mention of the name Brindley and was intrigued. Clearly he didn’t get on with the third millowner. She didn’t pursue that point now, just enjoyed the brisk walk past the inn towards Mr Seaton’s house, which also lay next to his mill. Their breath clouded the chill air and their footsteps sounded clearly on the square stone setts that paved the streets in this central part of the town.
“Does Mr Seaton spin cotton too?” Penelope inquired.
“Aye. Towns usually specialise in either spinning or weaving. In Tapton it’s spinning, though there’s a small dye works too. We use steam engines to drive our machinery nowadays, but we used to use water power. Ben’s bringing some new machinery into his mill soon, so it’ll be more efficient. His father let things run down, I’m afraid, and Ben’s had a hard time of it since he inherited. But he’s pulling things into shape at the mill now.”
He hesitated, then added, “If he seems a bit short-tempered, well, he’s got a few problems at the moment, so please bear with him.”
He stopped in front of a square, stone-built house. It stood neat and solid in front of the mill and something about it appealed to Martha.
The door opened before Mr Wright could raise the knocker and a plump elderly maid stood there beaming at him. “I saw you walking down the street, Mr Jonas. Come inside quickly, ladies. It’s bitter cold out.”
He gestured to the two sisters to precede him, then said in his easy manner, “This is Hepzibah Carr, who’s been with the Seatons since she was a lass and who rules this house with a rod of iron.”
“Get on with you, Mr Jonas,” she chided with a fond smile, then turned to study the visitors quite openly before saying, “I’ll just send Nan across the yard for Mr Ben. Miss Georgie is waiting for you in the front room.” She threw open a door, calling, “Here they are, love.”
From the rear of the room a girl moved forward into the brighter circle of lamplight. She was pretty, but her appearance was spoiled by a sulky expression and her clothes were far too grown-up for a girl of sixteen, in Martha’s opinion, and far too fussy.
“Good evening, Georgie,” Mr Wright said. “I’ve brought Miss Merridene and her sister Miss Penelope to meet you.”
“Good evening. Won’t you please sit down?” Her voice was wooden and when the sisters had sat down on the sofa, she chose a chair set further back while Mr Wright went to stand in front of the fire, one hand on the mantelpiece. “Ah, here he is.”
There was the sound of footsteps and as she’d suspected Martha recognised the gentleman who had picked up her purse. He stopped just inside the doorway, looking somewhat abashed as he recognised her too, then turned to Mr Wright, smiling a greeting. She decided that when he wasn’t scowling he was, as Sally would say, a fine figure of a man, if not strictly handsome.
Mr Wright made the introductions, saying frankly, “Libby sent the ladies round to meet you because she’s happy for them to teach our girls.” A clock chimed on the mantelpiece and he looked at it with a frown. “Can I leave you to escort them back to the inn, Ben? One of the older machines has been giving us some trouble and I want to check it before the men leave for the day.”
“Yes, of course.”
“And someone will need to show the ladies round the house in the morning.”
“Hepzibah’s agreed to do that. I’m going to be busy tomorrow, as you know, or I’d do it myself.”
“Aye, well, it’ll probably be better for a woman to do it, anyway. I hope things go well for you, lad.” He clapped Mr Seaton’s shoulder and turned to say, “Goodbye, ladies. I’ll see you tomorrow before you leave.”
When Jonas had gone, showing himself out, Ben took the big armchair opposite his two visitors and sat in it with his hands resting on the arms. He looked tired but alert.
His sister was leaning back so far in her chair that her face was mostly in shadow.
“I’ll come straight to the point,” he said. “Georgie here doesn’t feel she needs any more governessing, but I don’t want her idling the days away—or getting into any more mischief.”
Martha was dying to ask what sort of mischief he was referring to, but refrained. “How old are you, Miss Seaton?”
“Not for three more months,” her brother corrected sharply, earning himself an angry look.
“Then you’re definitely too old for normal lessons,” Martha said. “What you need to know now is how to run a household, do the accounts, deal with servants, plan meals—that sort of thing.”
The girl shrugged. “I shall be able to afford servants to do all that. My father left me plenty of money, so
shan’t have to lift a finger.”
Ben growled in anger and opened his mouth. Martha was afraid he was going to correct his sister again and make her even sulkier, so shook her head at him. She was pleased to see him take her meaning and snap his mouth shut again.
“You’d be very bored if you sat around doing nothing all day,” Penelope said lightly. “And you’d get very fat, too, if you didn’t take some exercise. Women do, you know.”
Martha saw Ben’s hastily suppressed amusement as Georgie looked down at herself in horror and she too had to hide a smile before turning away from that point. “If you don’t understand the work your servants do, how will you check that they’re doing their jobs properly?”
Georgie frowned but said nothing more.
There was silence then Ben said, “Well, if Libby approves of you, then it’s all right with me if you take the job, ladies.”
want to ask us anything, Mr Seaton?” Penelope ventured.
“I shouldn’t know what to ask a governess, but I trust Libby Wright’s judgement implicitly. Did Jonas speak to you about the other thing, helping our men?”
“Yes. I’ve already done similar work,” Penelope said. “My fiancé was a clergyman and we were helping some of his poorer parishioners to better themselves.” This time she added before he could ask, “Sadly, John died two years ago, so I wasn’t able to continue the work. I’ve missed it.”
Ben nodded and when no one said anything else, asked impatiently, “Well, shall you take the job?”
Martha said what they’d agreed beforehand. “We’d like to think about it overnight and give you our decision after we’ve seen the house you’re offering.”
“Aye, well, that makes sense. I’d do the same myself. Hepzibah will come and collect you from the George and Dragon tomorrow. It’s only a short walk to the house. Nine o’clock do you? The town should be quiet enough by then.”
“Nine o’clock will suit us perfectly, Mr Seaton.” She wondered what he meant by “the town should be quiet by then” but didn’t ask.
“Good. I’ll escort you back to the inn.” He stood up and the ladies followed suit. His sister didn’t stir.
“Georgie! Where are your manners?”
The girl came slowly to her feet, muttering a farewell.
Martha gave her a brief nod, then turned back to Mr Seaton. “We can find our own way back to the inn. It’s not far.”
“I’d prefer to go with you.”
He barely said a word as they walked briskly back and at the inn he tipped his hat before striding off into the darkness.
“He’s very abrupt,” Penelope said, pausing to watch him go.
“He’s downright rude most of the time,” Martha said, chin jutting dangerously. “And I mean to treat him in exactly the same way from now on and speak my mind when I’m with him.”
“Was it my imagination or did he look surprised to see you?”
“We’d already met, but not in such a way as to exchange names. I didn’t have time to tell you but I bumped into him when I went for a stroll and we—um—disagreed about something.”
“Oh.” Penelope didn’t comment further because she had never seen her sister get flustered for so little reason and was intrigued by this reaction. “Georgie is going to be difficult to deal with, don’t you think? We shall probably earn every penny of what he’s offering.”
“Yes. In fact—I’m not at all sure about this venture now, what with the classes for men from the mill as well. What do
think about that? Really.”
Penelope looked at her in surprise. “You know I’ve always believed in universal literacy. I’d love to help the workers from the mill. And I think the Wright children are sweet. I’m sure I’ll enjoy teaching them and playing with them. Did you see how careful they were not to bump their mother’s sofa? Her illness must be very hard for them all.”
“Especially her.” But Martha was still thinking about Ben Seaton, not at all sure she wanted to work for him. She found him very—she fumbled mentally for a word and could only come up with
. “Well, we can’t stand here all evening. Let’s go inside and beard the lion in his den.”
“Lion? Edward? He’s more a rabbit, wouldn’t you say?” They both chuckled.
Their cousin darted out of the sitting-room as soon as he heard their voices in the stair well. “There you are at last. What kept you so long? It’s almost time for dinner.”
“We’d better go and change, then.”
“No, no! Come and tell me what happened first. I’m sure there’s no need to change, given the circumstances.” He led the way back into the sitting room. “I think it was extremely rude of Mr Wright not to invite me to accompany you. After all, I
the head of the family. But I didn’t make a fuss, not when your livelihood might depend upon the fellow’s goodwill.” He looked expectantly from one to the other. “Well?”
“The Wright children seem delightful,” Martha said, “but their poor mother is very twisted with rheumatism. She must be in great pain.”
“Yes, yes! But I do hope you convinced her that you would be able to keep them in order. No one is going to hire a governess who can’t control her charges. I meant to have warned you of that point before you met her, but you left so quickly.”
Penelope stepped in hastily as she saw her sister begin to bristle with indignation. “We—um—satisfied Mrs Wright that we could offer her the sort of service she required and she sent us to meet Mr Seaton and his sister.”
Martha joined in. “They would definitely like to employ us but we said we wished to inspect the house they’re offering tomorrow morning before making our decision.”
“Very sensible. I shall come with you for that. As the landlord of several properties I can give you the benefit of my experience.”
“Mr Seaton’s housekeeper will be collecting us at nine o’clock,” Martha warned him. “Won’t that be a little early for you?”
Edward gave an aggrieved sigh. “I grudge you no exertion in this venture, though I still cannot like it. But—a mere housekeeper? Mr Seaton isn’t conducting you over the residence himself?”
“No. He’ll be busy at the mill.”
“And if the house is all right—?” He looked at them expectantly.
“We shall probably accept the positions,” Martha said.
“Hmm. I still cannot like it. Now that we’ve seen what a rough, dirty place Tapton is, you must surely realise that as gentlefolk, you owe it to your family to set yourselves up in a more salubrious area and—”
Fortunately the landlady knocked just then to see if they were ready for their dinner and Edward was distracted by the need to check exactly what she was offering them for their meal.
The following morning Hepzibah arrived promptly at nine o’clock, just as Edward was complaining about the lack of consideration of people who expected a gentleman to do business at this ungodly hour.
The housekeeper took them along one of the side streets leading off the other side of the square. Half-way along it she stopped and gestured to a house. “This is it. Fern Villa.”
The two sisters studied the outside, exchanging pleased glances at what they saw. Like the neighbouring residences, it was a neat three-storey building, double-fronted and with a very small front garden—but at least it had a garden, which many in the town didn’t. Hepzibah also pointed out that all the houses in the street had the luxury of piped water from the Tapton Municipal Water Company, which had been formed only three years previously at Mr Wright’s instigation.
“I wouldn’t advise you to trust a water company,” Edward declared at once. “I don’t use any water not drawn from my own well.”
“Mr Wright mistrusts the wells in the town,” Hepzibah remarked. “Says they’re poisoned by the seepage from the cess pits and won’t let his childer drink owt that hasn’t come from his own water company, yes and been boiled, too. Cook does the same for Ben and Georgie, just to be safe.”
“Shall we go inside?” Penny asked quickly, seeing that their cousin was looking thunderous at the housekeeper’s familiarity in using her employers’ first names. She was quite sure Hepzibah wouldn’t put up with him hectoring her without responding sharply, because Sally wouldn’t have either and the two women seemed rather similar in nature.