New Year’s Day 1913
Annie knelt down to open her bedside cupboard and felt for the small velvet box. She sat on the edge of the sagging armchair and pushed the lid of the box up with her thumb. The six tiny garnets in their flower-like setting glowed softly in the dim light. Gently, she pulled the ring from its tight bed and slipped it on, aware of the smooth feel of the metal, and tilted her hand upwards, spreading her fingers to admire the effect. She wished she could wear her ring all the time – show the world – but of course that was impossible while she was at work. Reluctantly, she took it off and put the box back in its hiding place.
Annie shivered. With the fire already gone out, the cold dug deep into her bones. She glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece and sighed. A quarter to ten. She’d arisen even earlier this morning to make sure all traces of last night’s party were swept away. What an evening. The butler having a heart attack, then Ferguson’s antics. Whatever had got into him? She bit her lip, and careful not to disturb her cap, smoothed her hair at the sides, and pulled out the crumpled note, which she knew off by heart.
I must see you tomorrow morning. I have something important to tell you.
Do not worry until we meet.
I hope to be at B.P. by 10 o’clock.
Ferguson Percy Bishop
How could he think she wouldn’t worry? The note had such a serious tone, completely unlike Ferguson, who was usually so happy-go-lucky. She churned the questions over and over in her mind. Why had he come to the party under false pretences? Was it just a dare? Had he been caught out? Well, it was no use wondering. He’d be here soon enough. Pinching her cheeks and dabbing her wrists with a touch of lavender water from the precious bottle her sister, Ethel, had given her last year on her eighteenth birthday, she rushed out.
She sped down the three flights of dark winding stairs, her boots clattering as she half ran along the narrow inner hall to the kitchen.
Mrs Jenner stood at the huge scrubbed table, her forehead perspiring from the heat. Her fingers, thickened with years of hard work, flew up and down as she rubbed pieces of fat into the flour, the contents of the cream bowl fast becoming like breadcrumbs.
‘Shut the door, girl, you’re letting all the cold air in.’
Annie’s heart beat faster as she closed the door behind her, and turned into the warmth of the kitchen. Thank goodness they were alone. She drew a deep breath and began:
‘Mrs Jenner, Ferguson—’
‘What’s he want now?’ Mrs Jenner didn’t bother to look up as she added water and forked the mixture together. ‘He’s in enough trouble, if you ask me.’
By her tone, Annie could tell Mrs Jenner was still peeved she hadn’t been told the contents of Ferguson’s letter the evening before. There wasn’t too much that escaped Mrs Jenner’s sharp brown eyes, but Annie had deliberately not read the note in front of her, despite her fingers itching to pull out the sheet of paper and find out what Ferguson thought he was doing. But at least Mrs Jenner hadn’t reported her when she had first found out Annie had a follower. That could have been serious, Annie knew. But things were different now she was engaged. Even Lady Bonham had taken the time to say she hoped Annie would be happy, and added that she would be pleased for her head housemaid to stay on. And Annie had agreed to, relieved she wouldn’t have to look for a new position.
Now, facing the cook, Annie drew a shaky breath. ‘Ferguson says he’s got something important to tell me.’
Mrs Jenner’s head jerked up and her eyes alighted on Annie’s note, which poked out of her apron pocket. ‘Probably breaking off the engagement, I shouldn’t wonder,’ she sniffed, pausing for a sip of water.
‘Oh, please don’t say that.’ Was that what Ferguson was hinting at? Could he have met someone else? Once or twice, especially when they went dancing, she’d noticed other girls giving him the glad eye, and he’d sometimes returned their smiles, but she hadn’t imagined he might be going to break the engagement. She swallowed.
‘You’re too young anyway.’ Mrs Jenner briskly rolled out her pastry. ‘He’s a bit too cheeky for my liking. And you’ve not known him long and already you’ve got yourself engaged. It’s all too quick, if you ask me.’
‘Lots of people get married far younger than me.’ Annie hoped she didn’t sound rude. ‘We’ve known one another nearly a year and we haven’t set a date yet.’
‘You don’t know ’em till you marry ’em.’ Mrs Jenner pressed the pastry into a pie tin with more than her usual firmness.
Annie risked a question. ‘How can you ever tell, until you do marry one?’
‘You can’t. And even when you’re married they can still surprise you – and it’s not usually a very good surprise, neither.’ The cook glared at Annie. ‘Can they spare you upstairs?’ Annie nodded. ‘Well, get this apron on then and be quiet so I can think straight. All this talk about men is doing nothing towards putting lunch on the table. I need you to get the pea soup going for downstairs.’
‘Yes, of course, Mrs Jenner.’ Annie glanced at the kitchen clock as she pulled one of Mrs Jenner’s aprons over her dress. The hands were creeping towards ten o’clock. She put the large basin of peas she’d soaked the night before into a copper saucepan and poured a pan of potato and leek stock over them. She placed the pan on the range and looked at the clock again. It was nearly five past. He was bound to be here in another minute or two. She had to say something right now.
‘Mrs Jenner,’ she tried again, ‘Ferguson has written to ask if he can come over this morning to see me. That was what the note was about. Might I see him alone for a few minutes? I promise not to be long. He’ll—’
There was a rap at the back door, followed by an insistent ringing.
‘That’s probably him now,’ Annie said, her heart thumping.
‘Why didn’t you ask me before?’ Mrs Jenner grumbled, taking her irritation out on her pastry for the second pie, pounding it without looking up. ‘Well, don’t just stand there – let him in! And make sure he wipes his boots thoroughly.’
‘I will, Mrs Jenner. May we go into the servants’ hall?’
‘So long as you’re no more ’an ten minutes. And don’t cry on my shoulder when he tells you it’s off.’
Annie opened the back door and Ferguson stood there smiling his crooked smile, making her pulse race, her anger dissolve. How lucky she was to be betrothed to such a fine-looking young man, with his straw-blond hair and dancing blue eyes. She loved the way his cheeks dimpled when he smiled and the tiny laughter lines at the corners of his eyes. But it wasn’t just his looks, she reminded herself. She truly loved him. Loved the way he made her laugh, and the fun they had together on their precious days off. Last night had been a prank. She’d have it out with him; warn him never to do anything like it again, and that would be the end of it. He’d settle once they were married. That was, she thought, her stomach suddenly turning over, unless Mrs Jenner was right and he’d come to break off the engagement. She searched his face for a sign that he was no longer interested.
‘Is it all right if I come in, Annie?’ He stepped towards her and quickly kissed her cheek.
‘I can’t be long.’ Annie’s cheek felt warm from his kiss. He must still love her. But the kiss might not mean anything. It might be his way of telling her kindly that he didn’t want to marry her after all. She swallowed. ‘Mrs Jenner’s short in the kitchen,’ she said, her voice sounding a little shaky. ‘She’s only given us ten minutes.’
‘It won’t take any longer,’ he said, closing the door behind him.
No, it wouldn’t take longer than ten minutes to break off an engagement. Not even five.
Annie led the way into the servants’ hall, praying her legs would stop trembling, and Ferguson made for one of the benches that ran along three sides of the long room. No one was about but in another hour the footmen would be in to lay the table. He sat himself down and looked up at her with a disarming smile and she knew he was unaware of the tumult spreading inside her. Then he straightened up and shifted forward until he perched on the edge. And still he hadn’t spoken. She opened her mouth to say something but the words refused to come. She cleared her throat. Ferguson spread out his hands and tapped his fingers on the bench, looking as though he were about to burst. Annie remained standing, her eyes never leaving his face, rubbing her engagement finger. She knew that tapping sign. It meant he was nervous. Or unsure about something. Unsure about how to tell her it was over?
‘Come here, Annie.’ He beckoned her towards him. ‘I can’t think with you standing over there looking so stern. Come and sit down with me.’ He patted the space beside him. ‘Last night was something, wasn’t it?’
In spite of her fears, Annie frowned. ‘You might have got me into serious trouble, Ferguson,’ she said, in a tone sharper than she’d ever used with him. He looked up, his eyebrows raised in surprise. ‘Why did you take such a risk?’ she went on. ‘Didn’t you know Lord and Lady Hamilton were invited here? They would have spotted you straight away.’
‘Yes, but I also knew that it clashed with another engagement they’d already accepted so it wasn’t really a risk. And I didn’t need no fancy dress for any disguise. I wear one every day.’
‘But I still don’t understand why you did it.’
‘It was a dare. Sidney dared me. And it seemed like a good idea to get the note to you.’
Annie shook her head in disbelief. ‘Who’s Sidney?’
‘Second footman. He owes me a bob.’ Ferguson gave a triumphant grin.
‘But you went and told Sir Henry your name. I couldn’t believe my ears.’
‘I know,’ Ferguson chuckled. ‘It just came out. But they won’t remember it. They’ll have forgotten all about me by now, what with poor old Stanton.’ His smile disappeared. ‘Annie, do come and sit down. I don’t want to talk about last night… I want to talk about us.’
Anxiety clenched her stomach. He was about to tell her what Mrs Jenner had warned her. That was why his face was so red. He was embarrassed to say he couldn’t marry her after all. Even though he seemed to be making every effort to act normally, he looked uncomfortable, as though he was wary of her. Ferguson, who always knew all the answers. Well, if this was the reason he was here she’d make it easy for him.
‘I understand if you’ve changed your mind about me—’ she began, thinking how dull life would be without Ferguson. She blinked back the tell-tale prickle of tears, determined not to let him see how much he had hurt her.
‘Whatever are you talking about?’ He grabbed the bench with both hands and looked up at her, his light-blue eyes piercing hers.
‘Your note…isn’t it to break our engagement?’ Now it was out she felt a relief, and unaccountably a flicker of defiance.
Ferguson shot to his feet and caught her slender hands in his own. He looked horrified.
‘Whatever gave you that idea? I’ve no intention of breaking off our engagement. You really are a goose.’
‘But the note—’
‘I couldn’t say more until I saw you but I might as well come straight out with it.’
‘I’ve seen a poster up at The Swan,’ he explained, ‘for people to work in Australia. I’m thinking of applying.’
So he was not being dismissed from his job; he was going of his own free will. And not just to another town. No, he was going thousands of miles from her, and people who went to live in foreign countries didn’t come back. She tried to snatch her hands away, but Ferguson held them fast.
‘What do you think?’ He gave her a little shake. ‘Annie, are you listening to me?’
Annie nodded, mesmerised by the movement of Ferguson’s lips as he spoke words she was finding difficult to take in.
He released one hand and tipped her chin up. ‘Don’t you think it would be a marvellous opportunity?’
‘It doesn’t make any difference what I think.’ Her voice was small and tight.
‘Of course it makes a difference. We can clear out of here. Have a better life.’
We? Annie swallowed. She looked into his face, only a few inches away from her own. ‘You want me to go with you?’
‘Of course you’re going with me. Did you think I’d go on my own? Without you? Dearest Annie, don’t look so surprised.’ He grasped both her hands again, pressing down on her fingers until she winced. ‘I didn’t want to say anything until I’d found out if we’d get a grant…they don’t always give them. It depends on whether you have a job to go to. We don’t…but it looks like we might get help. The Australians are doing everything to get the British over…build up their country.’ His words tumbled over themselves.
She stared at Ferguson, his face alive with excitement as he pulled her down on to the bench.
‘Annie. Say something.’
How could she? Nothing had prepared her for this. She wasn’t sure if she could even trust herself to speak.
‘I don’t know what to say,’ she managed. Ferguson put his arms awkwardly around her as though he understood, but she knew he didn’t. Nor could she draw any comfort from his embrace. He remained silent, waiting for her response. He was her fiancé. She had to tell him her true feelings. ‘It’s a shock,’ she said at last. ‘I’ve never thought about leaving Norfolk, let alone moving to Australia. It’s on the other side of the world.’
‘I know. In the old days it used to take three months on a sailing boat—’ Annie blanched, ‘but not now,’ Ferguson hurriedly continued. ‘They’re huge ships these days, and it only takes half the time. Oh, Annie, it will be such an adventure!’
He’d made up his mind. She felt sick in the pit of her stomach.
‘But why do you want to leave when you have such a good job in a beautiful house, and Lord and Lady Hamilton are so kind? All the extra meat and beer they give you now you’re first footman.’ She tried to lighten her tone but all she wanted to do was curl up in a corner.
‘That’s partly the trouble. Everyone likes working there so much they hang on to their jobs and it could take years before I’m promoted again. Even then, old Jackson will put up a fight. He’s too comfortable.’
‘Can’t we wait a bit longer?’ Annie begged, knowing it would kill her father if she left her family. ‘I’ll be nineteen in June. When I’m twenty-one, if you still want to go to Austra—’
‘No, I don’t want to wait that long,’ he interrupted. ‘And quite honestly, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life – our lives – in service. You’ve no idea what I’ve had to put up with since I was fifteen. Stretching as tall as I can with the other footmen to make sure I look the same height. Being called Percy, which I hate, or worse, some other name they decide on. Waiting on others. “Yes, sir; no, sir.” Everything to keep the toffs happy. But they never think if we are.’ His eyes met hers. ‘I’ve had enough.’
Annie was astonished. It was the first time Ferguson had spoken with such bitterness.
‘What about my sisters? How would they manage if I went so far away? And Dad.’ Her eyes sparked with a sudden thought. ‘And your ma and pa. You’re all they have.’
A shadow passed over Ferguson’s face. Annie guessed he was thinking about his younger brother and sister, only six and eight when they’d been taken with diphtheria. Then his face cleared. ‘They want the best for me. Not that they’d want to see the back of me, mind, but they’d understand. They’ve been without me for years now…they’re used to it.’ He paused. ‘Your sisters can come out and see us,’ he added, sounding more like his usual confident self. ‘Stay as long as they want.’
‘But Dad relies on me. He went to pieces when Mum died. And my sisters could never save enough money to visit us.’
‘What would you do for work?’ Annie persisted. ‘What would I do?’
‘I want to work on a sheep farm. And you could cook.’
‘A sheep farm?’ Annie jumped up. ‘And me a cook? I’m not trained, and anyway that would be back in service.’ She looked down at him, her deep blue eyes flashing in triumph. For once Ferguson was silent. ‘We don’t know anything about sheep,’ she continued, praying he would listen, ‘or that kind of life. I’d hate to be stuck on a farm away from everyone. And I’d miss my sisters – they’re too young to be left.’
‘Your sisters are older now.’ His voice had an impatient edge. ‘Ruby’s fifteen. You were her age when you had to look after them.’
‘But a sheep farm,’ Annie repeated. ‘How—’
‘We’ll learn. And anyway, if we stay here, we can’t work together even if there was a vacancy for you at Hatherleigh Hall. The Hamiltons are strictly against married couples working in the same house.’
It was pointless to tell him that rule didn’t apply at Bonham Place. Ferguson often reminded her that Hatherleigh Hall was by far the grander house.
A steely look came into his eyes she’d never seen before. Subconsciously, she rubbed her bare finger on her left hand. Would Ferguson still want to marry her when she told him she was not prepared to go along with his mad idea?
‘So what do you think, Annie?’ Ferguson’s tone softened. ‘You’d love it once we got there.’
Before Annie could ask how he could possibly be so sure, Mrs Jenner appeared at the door. ‘Come along, Annie, you’ve been gone more ’an ten minutes. There’s work to be done.’ She looked sharply at Annie, who bit her lip. ‘As for you, young man,’ Mrs Jenner turned to Ferguson, a sly expression in her eyes, ‘Sir Henry wants to see you in his library. Double quick.’
Annie thought her heart would stop as Ferguson jumped up, giving her a rueful smile. Sir Henry must have found out the young guest, dressed as a footman, was indeed a servant at Hatherleigh Hall. Why else would Sir Henry call him into his library? She tried to reason. Maybe Sir Henry would regard it as a New Year’s prank. No, even Ferguson would never get away that lightly.
‘Don’t worry, Annie,’ he said, squeezing her hand. ‘I can look after myself.’
The door opened and Gladys stood there, a gleeful smile playing over her thin lips
‘I’ve come to take you to Sir Henry’s library, sir.’ She bobbed her head on the ‘sir’ and Ferguson grinned. He twisted his neck round and gave Annie a wink.
‘Well, I’m sure I don’t know what Sir wants with your young man,’ Mrs Jenner said, darting a look at Annie after they’d disappeared. ‘What’s the matter, girl? What did he have to say for hisself?’
Annie took a ragged breath. ‘I’m sorry, Mrs Jenner, I feel a bit queer.’
The cook raised both eyebrows and studied Annie. ‘Go to your room, girl, but don’t be long. There’s plenty of work to get done, and what with Mollie off sick, and me short in the kitchen, I don’t know as how we’ll all manage, I’m sure. Here…’ she reached in a cupboard and took down a tiny bottle, ‘take these smelling salts with you.’
Annie seized the bottle before Mrs Jenner could say anything more. She wasn’t ready to be questioned about the enormity of what Ferguson had just asked her. With a hand pressed to her head as though to stop it from falling off, she stumbled up the stairs to the top of the house, into one of the attic rooms she shared with Gladys.
She opened the bedroom door, and as usual was struck by the meagre furnishings and the musty smell, no matter how often she and Gladys cleaned and dusted. When she’d first been promoted to head housemaid a few weeks ago at such an early age, Annie had been told she’d have her own separate bedroom. Full of excited expectation she’d peered inside the room Mrs Morgan had shown her and immediately said she would prefer to stay where she was. It was not much larger than a box room with a small grubby window looking straight on to the side wall of the kitchen block, destroying any view of the trees and grounds which Annie so loved.
Now, in the shared room, Annie’s heart sank. The maids’ rooms were such a contrast to the opulence downstairs. Goodness knows what she expected to find. A fire lit for her? Coffee set out on a chiffonier? Annie trembled as she went over to the window, ducking her head under the sloping ceiling. She pulled the curtain as far back as she could and looked out over the courtyard to the coach house. She paused a few moments then turned back into the room. The few inches of extra light from the window did little but show up the cheap bits and pieces, and the worn carpet which she and Gladys constantly tripped over. Sitting on her lumpy bed by the window, she willed her head to stop spinning. She unscrewed the cap off the smelling salts and inhaled. As the ammonia rushed up through her nostrils tears poured down her face and she sneezed and coughed, but at least it seemed to have done the trick. She replaced the cap and dropped the bottle into her apron pocket.
Thank goodness Gladys would be busy preparing the bedrooms for the weekend guests. She knew the maid wasn’t very taken with Ferguson. He was ambitious and adventurous and Gladys couldn’t abide by all that nonsense. She’d even hinted to Annie that Ferguson seemed a bit above himself since he’d been made first footman, and sometimes Annie found it difficult to defend him.
But, she loved Ferguson and they were to be married. They were both in good situations here in Norfolk but if they went to Australia they might not even get jobs.
Her head felt as though the ammonia had disinfected every part of her brain. She got up and paced the room, then picked up the only photograph of her two sisters from the mantelpiece; herself in the middle with her arms linking theirs; the three of them together. One of Dad’s mates at the printers had been given a camera. She remembered how she and her two sisters had giggled as the poker-faced amateur had asked them over and over to keep still and stop smiling so he could take the picture. Now, looking intently at the photograph of Ruby and Ethel, it occurred to her that if one of her sisters became ill she would be desperate to get on the first ship back to England. And what would happen if she got ill and let any new employer down? With shaking hands she placed the photograph back on the shelf and sat down on the bed again.
Supposing she went. What if her cooking wasn’t satisfactory? And Ferguson – would he be some kind of handyman? Working on a sheep farm was all too unknown.
She put her head in her hands.
Seconds later a thought struck her and she sat bolt upright. She would tell him he’d have to go without her. That way, she’d find out whether he really loved her or not. It would prove it once and for all.
She’d never doubted his love before. She wavered again. No, it would be impossible to go with him; to tell Ruby and Ethel that she was going far away and may never return. Not see them grow up into young women, and get married, and have children. And them not see her children.
But how could she wave goodbye to Ferguson? Ferguson who made her laugh; who said he loved her and wanted her with him.
She looked at the clock. Drawing in some deep breaths to compose herself she rose to her feet. If she was any longer Mrs Jenner would be cross, not to mention she’d be dying of curiosity.
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