Annie is only sixteen when she falls in love with Edwin, a young farm boy, but both need their parents’ consent to marry. The rift between their families, caused by their different faiths, means that permission will never be granted. Heartbroken, they part, and Edwin falls in love with Mary Ellen, not realising, at first, that she’s Annie’s estranged older sister. Their love deepens the hatred between the sisters, but his and Annie’s love for one another never dies. Can broken hearts be mended and who will be the loser in love?
Exclusive sneak peek for my followers: the story opens in 1873 when the sisters are children.
Maidford, Northamptonshire 1873.
Elizabeth Underwood lifted her skirts clear of the puddle and stepped across the open drain that ran along the street. She squinted into the early morning sun that peeped over the row of ironstone cottages hunched beneath their thatch; their tiny windows, black and impenetrable, peered back, repelling her curious and anxious eyes. Clutching her pail in her hand, she hurried down the hill to fetch milk from Tom Fletcher, the dairyman, at the bottom end of the village. At just over nine months, baby Samuel was hungrier than she could satisfy and had cried most of the night.
At least he was hungry, and the sniffle probably only a cold or teething, but having ten surviving children over the last twenty-three years hadn’t erased the pain of loss of her first and second-born babies. She pushed the hurt away with an expert hand, but the guilt and worry lingered. There’d been deaths from smallpox, scarlet fever, and whooping cough in the surrounding villages, and the graveyard of Saints Peter and Paul attested to the frail mortality of Maidford children.
Pigs rooted outside their sties on the rectangle enclosed by the four lanes that made up the village centre. The smell of them mingled with that of manure heaps and the cesspits at the back of the cottages, and effluent from these and the butcher’s slaughterhouse found its way across the street and swelled the rainwater flowing in the drainage channel. She wrinkled her nose, eager to collect her milk and return home to the schoolhouse opposite the church at the more sanitary top end of the village.
Tom was milking the last of his Norfolk and Suffolk Red Polled cows. He was immensely proud of his herd and always gave them their full title though most folk called them Red Polled to differentiate them from the Dairy Shorthorns that had replaced the more dangerous Longhorns after Old Harry Linnell was killed by a rogue horn to his ample belly.
The smell of warm cows was comforting. She leant against the door post of the milking parlour to breathe it in. ‘Morning, Tom.’
‘Mornin’, missus. What can I be doing for you?’
She held out her bucket. ‘Half a pail of your finest, please Tom, for our Samuel.’
‘Give her here.’ Tom took the pail and placed it under his cow. ‘Come on, Rosie. The missus here could do with a bit o’ milk for her little’un.’ He stroked the cow’s teats rhythmically and squirts of blue-white liquid rang against the cream enamel. ‘I ain’t seen your Mary Ellen for a while. She’s not ailing, I hope?’
A tabby cat rubbed around her legs, and she bent to stroke it. ‘She’s living with my brother, Henry, and his wife, Harriet, in Adstone.’
‘Henry Bull, the carpenter as keeps The Wheatsheaf?’
‘The very same, Tom.’
The cat moved closer to the pail and licked its lips hopefully.
‘How old is young Mary, now?’
‘Twelve last April.’
‘Such a frail mite, I always thought. I swear I could blow her away like chaff from wheat.’
She smiled. ‘She’s tougher than she looks, Tom. And Harriet will look after her. And her brother William will watch over her, too.’
‘He still apprenticed to Henry?’
‘Yes, and he’s loving it. I hope to walk to Adstone at the weekend to visit with them.’
‘Remember me to them. I may go over myself one evening for a pint or two of ale.’ The cat put its paws on the edge of the pail, and Tom aimed one of Rosie’s teats towards it and squeezed. A squirt of milk sprayed across its face; it shook and then licked its nose and dripping chin.
The rhythm of Tom’s gnarled fingers hypnotised her as the bucket filled, and her mind wandered to Mary Ellen, her second eldest daughter. She hadn’t been expected to see her first birthday, but God had answered her prayers for her daughter’s life despite her not having confessed her greatest sin.
Tom’s voice startled her from her sleep-deprived reverie. ‘Here you go, missus.’
‘Thank you, Tom. Thank you, Rosie.’ Her purchase made, she hurried up the lane, across Longwell into Church Lane, past the newly built redbrick school, and into the schoolhouse.
The kitchen was empty, her husband, Will’s, lunchbox gone. He’d be halfway to the ironstone quarry by now. During twenty-four years of fatherhood, he’d acquired the necessary habit of sleeping through crying babies she’d never managed as a mother, but she didn’t resent him that ability. He laboured hard to provide a decent living and was proud of their growing family and the fact she was educating them and the village children. They counted themselves fortunate to have a newly built home that was dry, light, and airy. Edward and George were old enough to get themselves to work. The girls, however, still needed herding to school, which fortunately, was only next door. She stood at the bottom of the stairs. ‘Annie? You up?’
Floorboards creaked above her head. ‘Yes, Ma.’
‘You got your sisters up?’
More creaks and an ominous crash. ‘Yes, Ma.’
‘Shush, you’ll wake Samuel – he is still asleep?’
A wail answered her question. She sighed and put a pan on the stove to warm milk. At almost nine, Annie was a capable child, but Sarah and Edith, her younger sisters, were wayward and trying, especially on school days.
She could have used Mary Ellen’s help around the house, but the girl was more than old enough to be earning. Harriet, who was childless but loved Mary Ellen to bits, had offered her niece a job as a maidservant when the child was only eight and looked after her like her own. It was a small sop to her guilt at sending her daughter away. Harriet had landed on her feet when she’d met Henry Bull, landlord of The Wheatsheaf and master carpenter.
Shod feet clattered on the stairs. A tiny fist clenched a tangled lock of Annie’s long blonde hair, and Annie screwed up her face in pain. ‘Sammy was crying, Ma.’
‘Here, give him to me.’ She unclenched Samuel’s fist, took the baby from Annie, and balanced him on her hip. ‘See Sarah and Edith get washed while I get breakfast and feed Samuel, there’s a good girl. If you’re late, it sets a bad example to the others.’
She smoothed the wayward lock of gold from her daughter’s face with a pang of guilt. The child was only a year older than Sarah and less than two years older than Edith, and she heaped a lot on her young shoulders. ‘Bless you, Annie. What would I do without you?’
‘I ain’t going nowhere, Ma.’
‘I’m not going anywhere – not ‘ain’t going nowhere’, Annie.’
‘Sorry, Ma.’ Annie’s lip turned up at one corner. ‘But I ain’t.’
She shook her head in mock despair and removed the pan from the heat. Annie would go away too, one day soon, into service like Mary Ellen, most likely. And with strangers, no doubt. The thought made her uneasy, but she couldn’t keep her daughters at home forever. Young Henry, her second son, was apprenticed in Towcester, and Fanny, her eldest, married a twelvemonth, was expecting her own first chick – a first grandchild for her and Will. How the years had flown since those heart-breaking days farming in Adstone with Will and his father when Fanny was a baby. Samuel sneezed and her heart lurched. His forehead was hot, but he was red from crying. That’s all it was, just a cold and teething, nothing more.
Samuel safely with her cousin, Kate, for the school day, Elizabeth stood at the schoolroom door and rang the bell for the class to begin. She counted heads as they filed through the door. Forty-one. Who was missing? ‘Sit down, children, and silence, please, while I call the register.’
Forty-one heads turned to face her. Forty-one open minds to teach and souls to mould. The responsibility weighed heavy as the only schoolmistress the children had. She called the register and marked the names of the missing pupils with a cross. She’d visit the homes later to see all was well. Infection ran through a school and a village like – plague sprang uneasily to mind.
‘Please, Miss.’ A five-year-old with dark curly hair and a pained expression squirmed on his chair his arm and hand stretched as if to reach the rafters.
‘Please, Miss, I need the toilet bad.’
‘You should have gone before you came to school, John.’
‘I did, Miss. I went, honest, but…’ John got to his feet and dashed from the room holding his stomach.
‘Anyone else need the toilet before we begin?’ Two more hands shot up. ‘Be quick then.’
The white chalk screeched on the slate blackboard, making her wince as she wrote out the morning’s sums. John returned with his shirt hanging out. ‘Come here.’ She unbuttoned his trousers and lifted his shirt ready to tuck it in. Raised pink spots decorated his small round stomach and spread up across his chest. She rearranged his clothing and sent him to sit at a spare desk away from the other children. It could just be flea bites, but it might equally be chicken pox or measles.
‘Annie, come here a minute.’
‘Yes, Ma… Miss.’
She bent close and kept her voice low. ‘Run to Mrs Goode’s house in Longwell, and ask her if she’ll pop up and see me straight away, will you?’
‘Yes, Miss.’ Eager to avoid doing her sums, no doubt, Annie disappeared at a run.
‘Now, class. If we’re quite ready. Edith, Sarah, pay attention. You older children can copy these sums onto your slates and write the answers. The younger ones will collect blocks from the cupboard and we’ll do some counting.’
Her mind strayed to her second eldest daughter as she went from desk to desk helping where needed. At least, Mary Ellen was away from any contagion John might have brought to school.
The door opened and Annie arrived with Catherine Goode in tow. The lady was rather out of breath. ‘What is it, Elizabeth? Is it my John?’
She motioned to Mrs Goode to step outside the schoolroom. ‘John has a rash on his stomach and chest. Spots…’
‘Oh Lordy. He said he had a headache and stomach ache this morning, and he seemed tired, but he was keen to come to school. He didn’t complain of no spots.’
‘Stomach ache? He had to rush to the toilet earlier.’
‘And last week he was constipated. Spots and the runs. Our Josephine had that with the chickenpox.’
‘You’d better take him home and get Doctor Hill to look at him, just to be on the safe side. I’ve five children away today, so it might be there’s something going around. Let me know what the doctor says, Catherine, in case I have to close the school.’
‘I shall. You can’t be too careful.’
‘Indeed, you can’t.’ She fetched John from his lonely desk and watched as he and his mother walked hand in hand across the schoolyard. Chickenpox wasn’t the only disease with those symptoms, and if it was what she most feared, she, Annie, Edith, and Sarah – and most of the children in the village – had already been exposed to it.
The five children off sick lived in the row of ironstone cottages at the lower end of the village. The ground was high at the back which made the tiny cottages damp. Small windows fronting the lane let in sparse light and afforded little air, but the front door of the first stood open throwing September sunshine onto a stick chair and a table spread with pieces of lace.
Rose Jenkins, bent over her lacework, looked up when a shadow fell across her. She shielded her eyes against the sun. ‘Mrs Underwood?’
‘Bobby and Isobel weren’t at school today. Are they ill?’
‘They ain’t neither of them been right for a few days. Both off their food. And they were on the chamber pot most of last night. Isobel was complaining of a bad head this morning. I sent them back to bed.’
‘Something they ate?’
‘They’ve had the same as the rest of us. Belly pork, taters, greens, and a bread pudding. No one else is ill.’
‘Do they have a rash? Spots?’
‘I don’t think so. No, I’m sure they don’t.’
‘It’s probably just an upset stomach or a chill to the stomach. Let me know if they won’t be in school tomorrow.’
‘Yes, of course. Thank you for calling.’
She smiled. ‘I’ve three more absentees to check on and all in this row. I was afraid there was something going around.’
Mrs Jenkins produced a less than white handkerchief and blew her nose. ‘It’ll be summat a nothing, I dare say. They play together and sleep three to a bed. One or another of them always has the runs or a sniffle.’
‘I’m sure you’re right.’
She hoped she was. Two women were chatting at one of the village pumps, one of several wells that served the villagers. She waved and hurried on. In the cottage next door, the two errant children seemed listless but otherwise healthy, so she expected them back at school next day, but in the cottage at the end of the row, six-year-old Freddy had spots and was running a temperature. He lay on a couch in the one room in which the family played out its daily life. Not for the first time, she was thankful for the spacious quarters of the modern schoolhouse with its own well outside the scullery, so different from the farm cottage in Adstone in which she’d raised her older children.
Freddy’s brow was sticky with sweat. ‘How long’s he been like this, Elsie?’
‘He had a slight temperature yesterday, but it seems worse today.’
‘Has the doctor been?’
‘It might only be the chicken pox.’ Elsie looked up at her, worry etched in her brow. ‘You think it’s something worse?’
‘I don’t know. There’s six children ill. Does Freddy have diarrhoea?’
‘It started this morning.’
Six children didn’t make an epidemic, but… ‘I think you should have the doctor to see him. I can send someone with a message if you want? I need to have a chat with him, there being so many ill.’
‘You do think it’s something worse – oh dear Lord, not smallpox.’
‘We mustn’t jump to conclusions, Elsie. There are several things could account for it.’
‘Yes, you’re right. Yes, ask the doctor if he’ll call. Thank you, Elizabeth.’
A burly figure carrying a Gladstone bag crossed the lane in front of her. ‘Doctor Hill! Wait.’
He turned to face her and removed his hat. ‘If it isn’t our lovely schoolmistress. I was just on the way to see one of your pupils.’
He shook his head. ‘No, Zack Medlar.’
Zack was eleven and an ex-pupil now. He lived with his widowed mother and seven siblings in a two-room cottage lower down the hill. ‘Zack is ill, too?’
‘John Goode, the two youngest Jenkins’, the Mortimer twins, Freddie.’ She waved an all-encompassing arm at the cottages behind her.
‘Not all the same but constipation, diarrhoea, headache, fever, loss of appetite – a rash, spots. I told Elsie I’d ask you to call on Freddie.’
‘Um. I think I’d better call on them all.’
‘They may not be able to afford your services.’
‘The health of children is above price, my dear. Don’t worry your head about that.’
‘If…’ She couldn’t put her fear into words. ‘Should I close the school?’
‘Not yet. Let me see my young patients, first. It may be nothing.’
‘You’ll let me know, if…’
‘Yes, of course. Don’t fret, my dear lady. I’ll acquaint you with my findings.’
She hurried home, eager to check her children. Smallpox could be fatal, and there were other worse horrors that might rear their ugly heads without warning. It was nine o’clock when a knock on her door roused her from a guilty ‘forty winks’.
‘I’ll get it.’ Will got to his feet. Weary footsteps clattered along the tiled hall. ‘Come in, Doctor, what can we do for you?’
‘I came to see Elizabeth. She expressed concern about some of her pupils.’
‘Yes, she told me. She’s in the living room. Go through, please.’
She was on her feet before the doctor came through the doorway. ‘What is it? Is it serious?’
‘My good lady, please sit down. Don’t distress yourself.’
‘But the children…’
‘I fear it may be the beginning of an epidemic.’
Her heart faltered. ‘Is it…?’
‘I can’t be certain yet, but I fear it may be typhoid fever.’
Broughton, Northamptonshire 1873
Herbert Hunter glared at the soft down on his chin. At eighteen, he should have a beard and sideburns growing thick enough to hide the long scar that ran from his temple to his jaw. He fingered the other more disfiguring scar that made a narrow bald stripe through his auburn hair and on through his eyebrow and down to his cheek. He was lucky not to have lost his eye, but for all the use it was, he might as well have done. As it was, it sat lower on his face due to a broken cheek bone, wept almost constantly, and the eyelid was half closed over it.
He’d been eight when the homemade trolley he’d been riding had gone out of control down Cransley Hill and under a pair of dray horses that were coming to the blacksmith’s shop to be shod. The startled horses had trampled him, and he’d been not been expected to live. The incident had left him scarred both physically and mentally for the children at school, especially the girls, had been cruel. They seemed afraid of him as if his ugliness was catching and called him Cyclops after the one-eyed creature in Greek mythology Miss Bates had told them about in class. He’d heard them whispering when they thought he couldn’t hear, and their parents were no better.
‘Poor lad, such a shame. I can hardly bear to look at his face. He scares the children. No woman will ever want him. He’ll still be living with his mother when he’s fifty, and she mollycoddles him. What’s he going to do when she’s gone? He’ll be all alone then – no, no woman will ever want him. Poor lad. Poor Esther with a son like that. Pity he lived, really.’
The words life had printed indelibly in his mind followed him to The Red Lion most nights. There, he could escape into a man’s world – a world of work talk, beer, dominoes, darts, and table skittles. The men didn’t judge him so harshly or treat him with pity and contempt. It would have been different if his father had been alive. There’d have been money to pay for a doctor to help heal his wounds without leaving such horrendous scars, but Father had been dead fourteen years. He still held precious memories of the man he’d hero worshipped. That’s when it had all gone wrong – when he was four. Mother had been left with two boys from her first marriage, three boys from his father’s first marriage, and him and his two older brothers. On top of raising eight boys, she ran his father’s saddlery business in the High Street and was the village postmistress. Henry Herbert Hunter, baby of the family and ugly millstone round the family neck, had come very low in the pecking order, always supposing his siblings deigned to notice him to allow him to peck. Only Mother threw him crumbs when she didn’t have time for him and smothered him when she did. Now that he was only one left at home, she smothered him all the while.
He wasn’t sure which was worse – being smothered or being ignored. He was glad to go to work of a morning and take out his rage at life’s iniquities on bricks and stone with a mason’s hammer and chisel.
But all wasn’t gloom. He mopped his eye with the corner of a handkerchief, picked up the comb, and smoothed his hair over the bald stripe and forward across his scar. Then he adjusted his collar and straightened his tie as if it would make him more presentable to the world. He was going to prove those naysayers wrong and find a woman who’d marry him. A woman who’d look after him after Mother had gone – a woman who’d do his bidding, love him, and give him children, not call him names behind his back – a woman who’d be proud to have him at her side. He wouldn’t grow old alone and go to his grave unmourned. There was one girl in the village who spared him a smile. Her name was Freda Lenton. She lived in Church Street, and she was sixteen, slim, and intelligent with brown hair and twinkling hazel eyes. Tonight, or tomorrow night, or the day after – when he’d plucked up his courage, he was going to ask Freda out.
Freda stepped nimbly over the puddle and into the Post Office in the High Street.
Esther Hunter greeted her with a smile. ‘Good morning, Freda. What can I do for you?’
‘A reel of white cotton if you have it.’
‘I hear you’re making our Rosie’s christening gown. That’s quite a responsibility.’
She’d forgotten Esther was a Plumb before she married Francis Dainty and then Herbert’s father. ‘It is, but I shall make sure I do my best work.’ She took the reel of cotton and waited hopefully. ‘And I’ve come for my sixpenny piece, Mrs Hunter. I’ve been smiling at your Herbert like you told me.’
‘I thought the poor boy looked happier.’ Esther opened her till and took out a shiny silver coin. ‘If he asks you out, and you say yes, I’ll give you a florin.’
‘I don’t know that I want to walk out with him, Mrs Hunter.’
Esther sighed. ‘I hoped a girl of your intelligence would see beyond the scars, Freda. He’s not a bad catch, you know. He’s my youngest, and I won’t see him left penniless, what with how he is. There’s the shop and the business when I go – a home ready-made. It would do the boy a power of good to think you don’t mind his looks. It’s hard for him to make friends, especially with girls. I know what they say about him, and how it hurts him.’ She took a florin out of the till and held it out. ‘A florin now and another when Herbert tells me you said yes. You’d be doing me a huge favour, Freda. That accident wasn’t Herbert’s fault, you remember that, but it’s him has to live with the consequences. All he needs is a little love.’
She pursed her lips. Four shillings just for walking out with Herbert was easy money, more than she’d get for making a dress for little Rosie Plumb’s christening, and she didn’t dislike him; he was a short, broad, energetic, and understandably quick-tempered youth with cropped auburn hair where the scarring hadn’t left him bald.
She felt sorry for him, and she’d never been one to call him names. ‘What makes you think he’ll ask me?’
‘Oh, he’ll ask you. I know my Herbert.’
‘All right. I’ll do it if he asks.’
‘Good girl. You won’t regret it.’
She hoped she wouldn’t. There was something a little scary about him that went deeper than the scars on his face. But scars weren’t catching, were they? And if it helped Herbert believe his looks didn’t put her off, surely that would be good for his self-confidence. She didn’t have to kiss him, after all. She wasn’t sure she could even for a shop and a business and a home ready-made. No, she’d wed for love, not money, and Herbert didn’t come close to her idea of a man she could love.
Maidford, Northamptonshire 1873
A pale and all-revealing Sunday light shafted through the high, arched windows of the Wesleyan chapel and fell on the hunched backs of the small congregation that almost filled the room. Typhoid fever was now a reality the village faced daily, and the faithful had assembled to pray for their sick.
Elizabeth held Samuel on her lap. Will sat beside her and next to Edward, and Henry sat at her other side. Annie was ill in bed along with Sarah and Edith, and Doctor Hill had promised to call on them after chapel.
The minister opened his Bible at his bookmarked place. He cleared his throat and hushed whispers stilled. ‘James, Chapter five: verses fourteen to sixteen.’ He paused as if to see who among his flock were not too ill to attend and who was listening with attention. ‘If any of you are sick, they should call for the elders of the church, and the elders should pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. Prayer that comes from faith will heal the sick, for the Lord will restore them to health. And if they have sinned, they will be forgiven. For this reason, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous person is powerful in what it can achieve.’
He scanned the rows of faces, hers as anxious as any. ‘It is not always God’s will to heal, or no sick believer would ever die. Yet, it is His will to heal, or those words wouldn’t be in the Bible. However, we cannot know what the outcome of our prayer will be. God is omnipotent. God will move from heaven in answer to our prayers. It is not for us mere mortals to understand how he does this, but since he invites us to pray, we should call out to him in our need.’
She’d already prayed for her daughters, in fact, she prayed for her family every evening before she went to bed and every morning when she woke and had done for as long as she could remember. Had God’s will included taking her first two babies?
‘Faith is a gift from God. Everything God creates is good, prayer and medicine are His gifts, so if healing does not come, we must believe that it is for our good and His glory. But we can help ourselves to be accorded God’s bounty. Sin may block His healing power, therefore, before we pray, we are justified in asking these questions of the sick. Are you a sinner? Have you confessed and repented of your sins? If there are sick among you, I urge you in God’s name to confess your sins to one another, to repent, and to seek forgiveness that you may receive God’s healing.’
Some shuffling of feet suggested there would be uncomfortable conversations. Feet stilled as the minister’s gaze fell upon the shufflers, and he turned to another bookmarked place. She was well aware of her own sins, but what sin could Annie, Sarah, and Edith have committed? They’d been late for lessons two mornings before the doctor had declared an epidemic, and she’d closed the school. Sloth was one of the seven deadly sins.
‘All healing in this world is partial and temporary, yet God’s word is true. We glorify him when we obey it, regardless of the outcome, in the hope of resurrection to eternal life. “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans eight, verses thirty-eight to thirty-nine.’ He looked up from his text. ‘And Corinthians fifteen, verse twenty-six “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” Let us pray together.’
Elizabeth bowed her head. Her conversation with God and Will would be painful.
‘Dear Lord, You are the Great Physician. May we have the wisdom, strength, and trust to reach out to You for help and healing. May this church be active in praying for those who are sick. Amen.’
A chorus of voices answered with feeling. ‘Amen.’
Adstone, Northamptonshire 1873
Mary Ellen opened the letter that bore her name. She’d never had a letter before with a stamp and all. It was written in her mother’s hand as was the one that had been addressed to Aunt Harriet. Was Ma ill? Was that why she hadn’t visited on Sunday after chapel as she usually did? And why a stamp when it was only a mile for someone to bring on foot?
My dearest Mary Ellen,
I pray you and the family are all well. I missed seeing you on Sunday, but I’m afraid there is illness in the village. I have had to close the school, and it would be reckless of us to visit you until the epidemic is over for fear of spreading it. You are such a little sparrow of a thing and so precious.
I am well at present, as is your father, and everyone sends their love. I’ll visit with you as soon as ever may be, but in the meantime, I shall write and pray to find you well. I have written to William and Henry to stay away from Maidford and the sickness. Take care my dearest girl,
Your loving Mother.
She read the words again her mother’s anxiety seeping from the ink. Dearest girl? Precious? Ma didn’t mean that, and she hadn’t mentioned Edward, Henry, or Sammy. She hadn’t mentioned Annie, Edith, or Sarah. She hadn’t said they were well. And neither had she said what illness would cause her to close the school. Either all her pupils were ill, or the illness was dangerous and catching. She folded her letter, put it back in its envelope, and trotted along the hall to find her aunt.
Aunt Harriet looked up from reading her own letter. ‘Come here, dear. Sit by me.’ Her aunt patted the seat of the sofa. ‘You’re not to worry, child. This illness will soon burn itself out, and everything will be back to normal in no time.’
‘I’m not stupid, Aunt Harriet, and I’m not a child. They’re all ill, aren’t they? Tell me, please. I’ll only imagine the worst if you don’t.’
Aunt Harriet let out a deep breath. ‘Your sisters are ill. There’s typhoid in the village. That’s why your mother didn’t visit.’
‘They have typhoid?’ Annie, Sarah, and Edith – she had to know. ‘Will they die?’
‘It’s not certain they have the disease. Sometimes, it takes weeks to be sure, but…’
‘Yes. I’m sorry, but I’m sure they’ll recover.’
‘But where did the typhoid fever come from?’
‘I don’t know, Mary Ellen.’ Her aunt’s voice held a note of exasperation. ‘No one knows how these awful plagues begin or where they come from. If we understood what caused them, don’t you think we’d stop them?’
She hung her head, ashamed. ‘Yes, of course, Aunt Harriet. I’m sorry.’
A strong arm encompassed her and crushed her to her aunt’s ample bosom. ‘Don’t be, love. We’re all afraid, and that’s the truth. If we’re to protect ourselves from the sickness, we must pray and confess our sins like good Methodists. Seek forgiveness, Mary Ellen, so I can pray for you.’
Heat flushed her cheeks. ‘But you’re not a Methodist.’
‘No, but your father is, and the Bible says you should honour your father.’
She fiddled with her apron. ‘I cut myself an extra slice of bread at breakfast.’
‘That isn’t a sin, Mary Ellen. Though you should have asked. I may have wanted it for something.’
‘Sorry. That’s not the worst of it. I ate the last of the honey and spread my butter really thick.’
‘You’re a growing girl. We’re not short of food here, dear.’
‘Now I’ve made it sound as if Ma never fed me.’ Her voice came out a small wail, a pent-up sin waiting to explode on her unsuspecting aunt.
‘Of course, she fed you.’ Hazel eyes read her soul and found her deepest secrets. There was no place to hide from Aunt Harriet. ‘Go on.’
‘I let Tommy Edwards kiss me.’
Her aunt sighed. ‘Mary Ellen, he’s not a good influence. He’s sixteen if he’s a day and not to be trusted with your virtue. Did your mother not warn you about young men?’
‘Why should she? My brothers are young men. Is William a bad influence? He’d protect my virtue.’
‘William is your brother. Of course, he’d protect you.’ Aunt Harriet cleared her throat. ‘I know you’re twelve and nearly old enough to marry, but your father would never agree. To him, you’re still a little girl. Marriage is soon enough for you to learn about young men, my girl. You mustn’t let boys ask for favours or take liberties. You’ll get yourself a bad name or worse, may God forgive you, and who’ll want to marry you then?’
She wasn’t sure she wanted to marry or find out what ‘worse’ meant, and the kiss hadn’t been what she’d expected. She’d wiped it away with her sleeve.
‘There now, don’t cry, child.’
‘I’m not.’ A fickle tear rolled down her cheek. ‘I’m sorry. I repent my sins and ask for forgiveness.’
‘God will hear your plea, Mary Ellen. I shall pray for your health and life, and that he may guide you always.’
She sniffed. ‘Thank you, Aunt Harriet.’
Her aunt smiled. ‘Now, girl. There’s floors to sweep, collars to starch, and pots to wash. Get to it before I fetch a broom to your backside. I’ve some praying to do.’
Maidford, Northamptonshire 1873
Elizabeth sat alone in the little chapel, up early as ever and hoping to grab a moment of privacy with God while he wasn’t too busy. ‘Dear Lord who knows my heart, please forgive me my sins and spare my children. Especially…’ She couldn’t ask God for special favours to absolve her own guilt. ‘Lord, forgive me for not loving Mary Ellen.’ There, she’d said it. She’d admitted it to herself and God, and now she must confess her sin to Will and explain herself to Mary Ellen – God grant her prayers were answered, and she was given the chance to do so.
The schoolyard, bereft of life, was a thorn in her heart, the tall blank windows of the school indifferent to her pain, and the house quiet, a sure sign of sickness. The noise of a bucket being emptied down the outside toilet gave her pause. ‘Will?’
The door opened. Will looked pale. ‘Best you keep away from me, Elizabeth. I’m not feeling so good.’
She took his arm in hers. ‘It’s a bit late for that, Will. I’ve been nursing sick children for a fortnight or more. I was up half the night cooling various foreheads. If I was going to catch typhoid fever, I’d have the signs by now. How do the girls seem to you this morning?’
‘I think Annie and Sarah are over the worst, but I’m worried about Edith.’
She’d allowed herself to love Edith. She put the kettle on the stove and spooned tea into a teapot. ‘Will, before I go up to see to the children, I need to unburden something I should have told you before. It’s my sin that’s making us – Edith ill.’
‘Your sin? What have you ever done that’s sinful?’
‘It began when we lost our precious baby girls, back in Adstone.’
‘That wasn’t your fault, Liza. It was God’s will.’
‘Maybe, maybe not. Listen to me, Will. This is hard enough for me to confess.’
Will nodded, his face a mask, but said nothing.
‘It hurt, Will. It broke my heart.’ She raised a hand to stay his sympathy. It had broken his heart too – she’d never considered before whether he’d succumbed to the same sin. ‘When Fanny was born healthy, and then William, Henry, Edward, and George, I was so happy. But then Mary Ellen came along, and she was so precious, so tiny and sickly, and she pulled so at my heartstrings. Will, I daren’t let myself love her in case she died.’
‘You’ve always treated her the same as the others. Of course, you love her.’
‘How can you know that? I hardened my heart to her, Will, out of fear of having it broken again. I’ve tried to love her, but always fear has stopped me. I sent her away to live with Henry and Harriet because I felt guilty every time I looked at her. What kind of mother does that?’
Will took her in his arms. ‘One who cares too much, Liza. A good mother who’s raised ten fine children.’
‘I’ve confessed my sin to God and prayed for his forgiveness. If it’s God’s will, Edith…’
‘Edith will survive, Elizabeth. I’ll walk to Blakesley and fetch the doctor to her.’
‘But you’re not well yourself. And what about your work? Someone should tell your foreman why you’re not at the quarry.’
‘I can walk a couple of miles to Blakesley, and Edith is more important than a ton of ironstone. There are so many off work, one more won’t be a surprise.’
‘Edward or George will go.’
Will looked at his hands, broad, callused, and dirt ingrained. ‘They were out in the privy before I was, arguing over who was more desperate. They’ve come down with this damn plague.’
She wiped a tired hand across her brow. The boys had been complaining of headaches and sore throats. Her prayer that they were suffering colds had gone unanswered. Edward and George, too, must confess their sins. She would ask the minister to call once Doctor Hill had been. ‘Why us, when most of the sickness is in the cottages at the lower end of the village? Are we so sinful?’
‘No more than anyone else. And most of those sick children are pupils at this school. This typhoid lies in wait and springs up just when you think things are getting better. Perhaps, we’re just unlucky. Take heart, Liza, at least no one in the village has died yet.’
‘Yet.’ Unlucky was one word for it, but she knew the real reason. She’d failed to love Mary Ellen in the eyes of God, and her family was paying the price of her wickedness.
Broughton, Northamptonshire 1873
Freda sat by the window in the front room of her parents’ cottage in Church Street hand stitching the smocking on the front of Rosie Plumb’s christening gown. White embroidery thread on white satin made a good light essential for the intricate work. A movement outside caught her attention. Herbert’s familiar figure was crossing the road towards her. He walked with a slight limp. She’d never noticed before, but now she looked at him properly, she could see the poor boy favoured his left leg. Had he come to ask her out?
A knock on the door suggested he had. She put down her work and opened the door. ‘Herbert. Father’s not in just now.’
Herbert mopped an eye with his handkerchief. ‘It was you I came to see, Freda.’
She feigned ignorance. ‘Me? You want something sewing?’
He straightened an already straight tie. ‘It’s taken me three days to find the courage – will you come with me to the dance tonight in the church hall?’
She smiled a four-shilling smile. ‘I’d love to, Herbert. Shall I meet you there?’
He grinned, and his usually dour face lit. ‘I’ll call on you, if I may. We’ll walk together.’
This time her smile was genuine. She’d rarely seen him so happy, and it made her feel good about agreeing even if she was being paid. She’d make sure he enjoyed the evening. ‘I’d like that.’
‘I’ll see you at half past six, then.’ He leaned forward and gave her a kiss on the cheek before she could move away.
She’d never been kissed before, not even on the cheek. Her face must have turned as rosy as a sun-ripened Cox’s Orange Pippin. Herbert made a slight bow and danced across the road. She laughed. Maybe the real Herbert beneath the surface scars would be fun.
Unable to concentrate on the fine stitching on the christening gown, she wrapped it in a white cloth, set it aside, and went in search of her mother.’
‘Was that young Herbert I heard at the door, Freda?’
‘Yes. He’s asked me to the dance this evening.’
‘You’re going? With Herbert? Are you dredging the duck pond?’
‘He’s not that bad when you get to know him, Mum.’
‘I suppose looks aren’t everything. What are you going to wear?’
‘I’ve only the one dress that’s suitable. I’ll heat an iron and run it over it to spruce it up.’
She was ready and waiting when Herbert called. It was a warm evening and she held her shawl over her arm conscious that it could be chilly later. Herbert looked smart in a dark suit and tie and polished boots. He smiled. You look lovely, Freda. I’ll be the envy of the dance.’
He was so gallant. ‘You look very smart, too, Herbert.’
‘I expected you to have changed your mind. You’re the first girl who’s given me the time of day.’
A tiny glimpse of Herbert’s lonely life shocked through her. ‘They don’t know what they’re missing, Herbert. You’re a nice man, and I like you.’
His grin split his face like a horizontal scar. ‘I like you too, Freda.’
Maidford, Northamptonshire 1873
The girls’ bedroom reeked of illness. It reminded Elizabeth of the stench of the open drain that ran through the village and emptied into the stream bordering Tom’s cow pastures. She lowered the sash on the window and let in a rush of blessedly fresh air.
Annie and Sarah lay sleeping. A quick hand to their foreheads assured her their fevers had left them. They’d complained less of stomach pains, and the rash had faded days ago. Even so, their arms against the counterpane lacked that sturdy healthy appearance of a few weeks earlier. She must make sure they ate well now that they were keeping food down and not spending their days on the chamber pot. She’d fetch a pail of Tom’s creamy milk and make egg and milk puddings to build them up again. No, she needn’t concern herself about Annie and Sarah now.
Edith moaned and turned on her side in her small bed by the window. She leant close to her six-year-old daughter. ‘Edith?’
Edith moaned again and opened her eyes but seemed not to see her.
‘Edith, it’s Ma. How are you feeling?’ A hand on the child’s forehead came away sticky with sweat. ‘You have a fever, sweetheart. Your father’s gone for the doctor.’
‘I’m sorry, Miss. Tummy hurts.’
Miss? Edith thought she was at school? ‘You’re in your bed, Edith. You’re so hot.’ She turned back the covers and was shocked to see stick-thin arms protruding from the cotton nightdress. When had Edith last kept down a meal? They’d all lost weight during the sickness, and Edith had always been skinny, but how had she missed her wasting away like this? She bowed her head and muttered a short prayer to her saviour.
‘Am I dying, Ma?’
The words speared her heart like shards of glass. Edith’s eyes, focussed now, were deep pools of fear. ‘Oh, Edith. No, darling, no. The doctor will be here soon. He’ll help you get better, I promise. I was just asking God to aid us. Annie and Sarah are much better already. You will be too in a day or two, you’ll see.’
Edith closed her eyes.
‘Edith?’ Her hand shook as she felt for a pulse in her daughter’s thin wrist. It pulsed faintly but steadily, and she let out a breath. She opened the window wider, collected the chamber pots, and padded quietly downstairs. She needed that pail of milk. Milk puddings should be easy for them to keep down and would be nourishing. She’d bathe Edith’s brow with a cold flannel, check on Edward and George, fetch some milk, get them all to drink a cup each, and then let them sleep while she got to grips with the morning’s tasks.
She emptied the chamber pots, washed her hands, and took the pots back upstairs. A cool flannel seemed to ease Edith somewhat, so she left her sleeping and hurried across Longwell and on down the lane past the worst afflicted cottages towards Tom’s dairy, covering her nose and mouth as she passed the slaughterhouse and cesspits.
The doctor would be here soon. Suppose Will had fallen ill on the way. Suppose he was lying in a ditch somewhere. Suppose… ‘Dear Lord, we’re not perfect, but we’re not bad people. Will’s a good man, a good husband and father. My children don’t deserve to die. I’ve confessed my sins, and I beg for Your grace and mercy. Not for myself, for them. Please, Lord don’t take my husband and children.’
Elizabeth followed Doctor Hill and Will up the stairs. Edith was no better, but Annie and Sarah, both still pale and weak, were up and sitting at the kitchen table drawing on their slates. They were behind with their lessons, but she’d neither the heart nor the time to school them, and anyway, all the children would need to catch up with her interrupted timetable.
She stood aside, her fingernails biting into her palms as the doctor examined Edith.
He put a hand on the child’s brow, pulled down her lower eyelids, and straightened. ‘She has the rash. How long has she had this fever, Elizabeth?’
‘She’s seemed worse these last three or four days, and a bit hot, but it only got really bad in the night. I thought the fever might have broken by this morning, but she seems worse still.’
‘You did right to call me. I shall need to take her temperature, rectally.’ He took a long glass tube from a wooden case and warmed the bulb end in his hands. ‘It speeds up the reading.’
She held Edith still while Doctor Hill took the temperature. ‘It’s typhoid, isn’t it?’
‘I’m afraid so. Putrid air… You have the windows open though, which may help.’
‘You can give her something like you did to Annie and Sarah?’
‘She’s worse afflicted than they were, I’m afraid. I can try laudanum, but I think letting some blood might help.’ He paused. ‘There is a treatment that has seemed to give results. I’ve not heard of it being tried in this country, though.’
Edith was moaning and seemed not to know where she was. There had been deaths from typhoid in other places, and she didn’t want Edith to be one of Maidford’s fatalities. ‘She’s delirious, again. Doctor, we’ll try anything. Will?’
Her husband nodded his agreement. ‘Do what you have to, Doctor.’
‘In Germany, about four years ago, they used a cold-water treatment. It reduced the death rate significantly according to some medical journals I read at the time.’
‘Cold water?’ It seemed too simple.
‘A bath of cold water, Elizabeth, if you could prepare one. William, if you would carry your daughter downstairs.’
Will shook his head. ‘We have a bath in the next room. I’ll fetch some water up. You stay with Edith, Liza.’
She nodded, wincing as the doctor tapped his fleam into a vein, and caught some of Edith’s blood in a small bowl. ‘Is she going to die, Doctor?’ The words came out in a whisper.
‘I won’t lie to you, Elizabeth. She’s very ill.’ He dressed the wound and spooned laudanum into Edith’s mouth. She spat it out and clamped her mouth shut.
Her youngest daughter could be very stubborn. ‘Edith, I know it tastes horrid, but it will help your tummy ache.’
Edith turned her head away. She looked so thin and frail – so pale and listless.
‘Hold her head, Elizabeth. We must get some of this down her.’
Edith moaned again and gabbled something incoherently.
‘It’s all right, sweetheart. Ma’s here. The doctor will make you better.’ She held Edith’s head while the doctor pinched the child’s nose between his thumb and forefinger. When Edith opened her mouth to breathe, he tipped the medicine in and held her mouth shut until she swallowed.
Edith was crying now, short, low sobs of despair and betrayal.
Heavy footsteps sounded up and down the stairs. Will had one of the boys helping to carry water, by the sound of it. His head poked around the door, his face grey with exhaustion, but he raised a smile for her sake. She’d forgotten he was ill too. ‘I think that should be enough. Is it the right temperature, though?’
Doctor Hill felt the water. ‘I’ve no way of measuring a temperature this cold, but maybe a kettle of hot, so it’s not so cold as to shock. Elizabeth, would you remove Edith’s nightclothes, please?’
The bath temperature approved, Will carried his naked daughter along the landing and deposited her carefully into the cold water.
Edith screamed and flailed her arms and legs, but Will, tears streaming down his cheeks, held her firm beneath the water. ‘Keep still, Edith. Please, sweetheart.’
‘No… No…’ Edith kicked and cold water splashed across the room drenching them all. ‘Let me out. Let me out.’
Will didn’t let go. ‘How long must she stay in here, Doctor?’
‘Ideally fifteen minutes.’
Edith, exhausted, began to weaken, her small body convulsing in shivers. ‘Ma… Ma…’
She couldn’t bear this. Edith was turning blue. ‘Doctor, please. This will kill her.’
‘Just a couple more minutes, Elizabeth. She’s quite safe. Shivering is natural.’
Two minutes stretched to eternity. She fetched a large towel and held it ready.
Doctor Hill felt Edith’s brow. ‘That’s long enough for the moment.’
Will lifted Edith out, and she wrapped her in the towel and held her close. ‘Ma’s got you, baby.’
‘Lay her on the bed, Elizabeth. I need to take her temperature again.’
She sat on the bed beside her daughter and held her. Edith’s teeth were chattering with cold and she was whimpering quietly.
‘It’s down under one hundred. The immersion has done its job. You’ll have to repeat the cold baths every time her temperature increases and give her laudanum three times a day. Do you understand? A cold bath every time the fever returns. Other than that, there isn’t much we can do. Bed rest, strengthening foods, and fresh air are the best medicines.’
She nodded, but she was shaking inside. For poor Edith, it was a terrifying torture, and those she loved and trusted were the ones inflicting it. Eyes cast heavenwards, she murmured beneath her breath. ‘Dear Lord, forgive us.’
‘Heavenly Father, giver of life and health, comfort those who are ill and give thy power of healing to those who minister to their needs, that those for whom our prayers are offered may be strengthened in their weakness and have faith in thy loving care. This we pray through Jesus Christ our Lord.’ The minister removed his hand from Edith’s forehead, made the sign of the cross over her, and bowed his head for a moment’s silent prayer. ‘God be with you, child.’
‘Amen.’ Elizabeth reached out and gripped Will’s hand. Edith seemed a little calmer after her cold immersion.
Downstairs, the minister sipped at a cup of tea. ‘Elizabeth, if God wills it, Edith will be well. You must have faith and ask for His grace and mercy.’
Elizabeth poured more hot water from the kettle into the teapot. ‘I have faith in God’s goodness, Reverend, but He must be tired of hearing my prayers. Do you think He hears them? I mean, there are so many people in sore need of His help.’
‘He hears all His children, Elizabeth. If you have confessed your sins, He will hear you.’
Heat made her collar suddenly constrictive. ‘I have, Reverend. Our Lord knows my heart’s imperfections.’
‘Then all will be according to His will. There’s nothing more we can do but wait.’
She nodded and poured Will a second cup. ‘We are very grateful for your ministry, Reverend.’
Will nodded but said nothing as he jiggled baby Samuel on his lap. He kept his own counsel on matters of faith.
The minister stared into his teacup thoughtfully. ‘I spoke to the rector last week. I’m not sure I hold with it, myself, but he seems to think this contagion originates in the milk.’
She almost dropped the milk jug. ‘Milk?’
‘Oh, I expect there’s nothing in it. He reckons it’s milk from Tom Fletcher’s dairy that carries the sickness.’
Her heart thudded against her ribs. ‘We have our milk from Tom. Is that what’s made us ill? But Samuel isn’t ill – or only a snuffle that won’t clear up.’
‘That’s how this typhoid starts, though, isn’t it?’ The minister clattered his cup in its saucer and pushed the cup away. ‘Like a cold, and it can take weeks to show, as I understand it.’
‘You think I’ve given him typhoid?’
‘I don’t know, but Tom’s dairy is at the bottom end of the village, which is where most of the sickness is. It’s him they buy their milk from. Anyway, the rector seems convinced.’
She stared at her son, her youngest and probably final child, held in his father’s strong arms as if, by will alone, he could keep him safe. ‘Oh Will, why didn’t I keep on breast feeding him? Dear Lord, what have I done?’
Adstone, Northamptonshire 1873
‘Well, if it ain’t little Mary Ellen.’
Mary Ellen looked up from wiping tables in the smoke room of The Wheatsheaf. A familiar figure blew smoke from his pipe and leaned against the back of the settle. She smiled. ‘Mr Fletcher. Have you brought news of Maidford? How is it there? Have you seen Ma?’
Tom Fletcher downed a pint of Phipps in long gulps and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. ‘It’s not so good, Mary Ellen. There’s nigh on twenty families afflicted with the typhoid, that’s a quarter of the village as has someone ill, and the rector’s trying to blame it on my milk. I ain’t ill, and I drink it all the while straight from the cow.’ He stared at his grime-ingrained hands. ‘These hands built that herd. The muck and shit of the land is ground into my soul.’
The muck and shit of the land were under his fingernails, and remnants of his farm and the lane from Maidford trailed across her newly scrubbed floor.
‘Those cattle are my life, and the damned rector is ruining me. Ruining me, Mary Ellen. Not even your mother will buy milk from me now.’ He slammed a dirty fist on the table top and then held out his tankard. ‘Another pint, girl, sharpish.’
Mary Ellen took the tankard, filled it from the barrel with the ornate brass tap, and carried it back to the table. ‘But have you seen Ma, Mr Fletcher? I haven’t heard from her for a fortnight. Is she ill?’
‘I heard tell as little Edith were right poorly.’ He shook his head. ‘It ain’t my milk that’s to blame, Mary Ellen. I shall have to slaughter some of my herd if this carries on. I’m tipping good milk away as it is.’
She sucked spilt beer from her fingers, Tom Fletcher’s milk problems gurgling down the drain of her mind unnoticed. ‘Edith’s ill?’ She loved little Edith.
‘So I heard.’
‘And the others?’
‘I think Annie and Sarah have got over it, but I believe your father’s been off work. I don’t know. I don’t poke my nose in where it’s not welcome.’
She sighed understanding Tom’s feelings of rejection all too well and unable to quell a familiar petulant envy. Annie had always been Ma’s favourite, in fact, Ma loved all her daughters more than she did her Mary Ellen, she didn’t know why that was so, but golden-haired Annie, with her sunny smile and easy nature, was definitely her mother’s favourite.
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