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Mary's Child
cover design © 2002 Judith Huey.

 

 

 

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Mary's Child

Celia A. Leaman

 

 

 

1809

Mary Jay

I will not wish thee riches, nor the glow of greatness,
but that wherever thou go some weary heart shall gladden at thy smile,
or shadowed life know sunshine for a while.

And so thy path shall be a track of light,
like angels' footsteps passing through the night.

Words on a church wall in Upwaltham, England

 

 

 

Chapter 1

 

Though the sun shone through the windows it did little to relieve the sadness in the Wolborough workhouse. In a chestnut tree outside sparrows chirruped and hopped from branch to branch, their freedom a stark contrast to the forlorn souls within who never celebrated any joy in living, but merely existed from one day to another.

At the end of a long corridor a young girl knelt, wearily scrubbing the flagstone floor. She paused for a moment to stretch and to ease her aching back. Unfortunately it was just as Kat Black, one of the workhouse assistants, came around the corner.

"Slacking, Jay?" Kat said. "Well, you can leave it. Brimley wants you in his office." She took a step forward and clipped Mary's ear. "You should have finished by now if you weren't slower than everyone else. Well? What you waiting for then? I said go, didn't I?"

Mary got up quickly, wondering if she should first empty the bucket, but another look at Kat's face relieved her of that decision and she scuttled along to the flight of stairs that led to the top floor where the Master of the workhouse, William Brimley, had his office. She couldn't think why he would want to see her unless it was with respect to the couple who had arrived some time ago. But what foolish hope, she thought, when she was the most unlikely candidate to be chosen.

She knocked and entered Mr. Brimley's office and he asked her to stand in front of his desk so that the couple beside him could have a look at her.

"This is Mary Jay, of whom we have been speaking," he said to them. "Mary Jay, this is Mr. and Mrs. Bennett from the parish of North Bovey on Dartmoor. They have need of an apprentice to work on their farm."

Mary's eyes darted towards Mr. Bennett. Of course she knew she must not stare; but at a glance she could see he was a chubby, jolly-looking man with a face as rosy as a red apple. And when he caught her quick, shy look he smiled and nodded encouragingly at her.

Harriet Bennett, however, didn't look as impressed as her husband and pursed her lips. "Haven't you got anything else?" she sniffed.

"Owing to the men going off to war laborers are in short supply everywhere," Mr. Brimley pointed out. "I'm afraid there is no one else whom I feel would be suitable for the work you describe."

"Humph, if that's the case why hasn't she gone out before?" Harriet grumbled. "She must be fifteen if she's a day. What's wrong with her?"

"Mary is coming up sixteen years-old," Mr. Brimley said, patiently. "There is nothing wrong with her except she is unable to speak, and others have not been comfortable with it you understand. That is the only reason she is still here."

As Mary listened to this all too familiar conversation her spirits fell. When people knew this they generally assumed she was also deaf, and thus too daft to take instruction.

In the silence that followed, while Mr. Bennett looked thoughtful, and Mrs. Bennett's expression seemed to suggest there was a nasty smell in the room, Mary waited for the inevitable rejection. But hope flared again when Mr. Bennett said, "Poor maid. From birth was it?"

Mr. Brimley shuffled in his seat. "Er, no Mr. Bennett, it was shock -- so I am led to believe. She has no problem with her other senses."

Harriet sniffed again. "That's what I'm afraid of," she said. "I don't know that she'll be at all suitable." She lowered her voice and said to Ronald, "What about Matthew, Ronald?"

"Aw, you don't have to worry about him," he said. "He's sweet on that maid Clara, at the Manor."

Harriet frowned. "Oh? And how long's that been going on?"

"Now, don't get in a huff. I only mentioned it so you would give the maid a fair chance."

"We aren't here to give anybody a chance," Harriet said. "We are here to find someone to suit our needs, and if she's simple..."

Mr. Brimley cleared his throat. "Mary is far from simple," he said. "To the contrary, I would say she is very bright. She has been a good, willing worker and learns quickly."

"Well, that's the main thing..." Ronald began.

"I'll thank you not to interfere, Ronald," Harriet said, sharply. "It isn't you who'll have the trouble of her."

"Trouble you say? It's help we have come for, to save your legs. If you're that put off we'll go home and say no more about it," Ronald replied, his color rising.

"Now wait just a minute," Harriet said, staying him with her hand. "It's just that we've hardly been given any choice, and she isn't what I came for."

Mr. Brimley cleared his throat. "It is better," he said, "not to come to the workhouse with any preconceived ideas Mrs. Bennett. Especially with the war on. As I have tried to explain..."

"Everyone blames Napoleon for everything and anything!" Harriet snapped. "I don't count him as an excuse for anything at all."

"It will be all right my dear," Ronald said. "I'm sure Mary will work out very well."

Mr. Brimley shuffled the papers on his desk and stood up. "Well, if it's settled then I do have rather a lot to do and I'm sure you'll want to be getting along. We'll just get these papers signed."

"Yes, indeed," Ronald said, also rising. "I do believe the matter is concluded well enough, and I thank you for your trouble, sir. "

Mr. Brimley turned to Mary. "Fetch your things, child," he said. "You'll don't want to keep these good people waiting."

Mary could hardly believe what she had just heard, and it was as if someone else curtsied and left the room, not her. Not her, because she was so dumbfounded, and she had to lean against the wall outside for a moment to recover. They had accepted her! Well, Mr. Brimley had persuaded...But though Mrs. Bennett might be reluctant now, Mary was sure she would change her mind when she saw how hard she worked; it was only Kat who said she was slow.

With a sudden burst of energy, and feeling something near to happiness, she skipped along the hallway and down the stairs. However, Kat was waiting for her at the bottom and Mary automatically dropped her smile and cringed away from her.

"Turned you down then did they?" Kat said. She scowled and raised her hand, as was her habit. "In here a bit longer then are you?" She smiled her ghastly smile then lowered her voice to a growl and said, "I knew they wouldn't take you. No one will ever take you out of here. You're stuck here for life. And so you should be, the child of that..." She stopped, and her hand fell to her side as she saw her sister Tilly coming down the corridor.

"Start putting your things together dear," Tilly said to Mary. "I'll come and help you in a moment." She turned to Kat. "For your information they did accept the girl. Now, thanks be to God, she'll be free of you."

Mary crept away as the sisters fought their private battle. She had no idea why Kat was so mean to her. Tilly, who was as different to her sister as cream was to coal, had told her it was jealousy. But Mary doubted this because she couldn't understand why anyone would envy such a miserable existence as her own.

***

"My, this is a day to remember isn't it?" Tilly said, minutes later as she helped Mary fold her belongings into a neat bundle. "I bet you're as pleased as punch."

Mary was. Of course she was. And she nodded and smiled. But as she watched Tilly tie her bundle securely together she suddenly realized she might never see her again, and she burst into tears.

"Oh Mary," Tilly whispered, embracing her. "I don't want to say good-bye either, I shall miss you more than you'll ever know. But this is what I've always hoped and prayed for." She held Mary away from her and wiped the girl's eyes. "There'll be someone else to take care of you now, the Lord always allows for angels on the way. Show them what you're made of. Work hard and be a good girl. The years go like nobody's business and one day when you have worked out your indenture you will be free to come and see me. Why, by then you might even be married and have children of your own."

If Mary could have spoken she would have told Tilly she loved her and would miss her too, even though she was so glad to be leaving the workhouse. And yes, she would work hard and be good, and one day seek her out. But she doubted she would ever marry. Though it seemed to be the fate of most young women Mary wanted no part of it. She would be quite content to stay as she was, and working on a farm where she would breath the sweet air of freedom, blessed freedom, until the day she died.

They heard footsteps coming down the corridor and Tilly's expression changed.
"I'm going to tell you something else now and don't you ever forget it," she whispered. "Your mother was a lady who died because of the wickedness of others. It was those with their hearts of granite that brought you in here, not her doings." Mary looked at her, surprised. But there was no time for Tilly to say any more, Mr. Brimley was in the doorway.

"Is she ready, Tilly?" he said.

Tilly drew herself up. "As ready as she ever will be, Mr. Brimley," she said.

"Come along then, Mary Jay. You don't want to keep them waiting do you," he said.

"Be brave my dear," Tilly whispered. "When you walk out of this place you can put it all behind you. You'll never have to come back in here again." She gave Mary one last hug, and Mary hurried down the passageway.

Mr. Brimley was a man who always seemed to be in a hurry. He was also a man of few words, but he had a tender spot for the young girl who, in his opinion, should have never entered the doors of his establishment. Before he handed her over to the Bennetts he bent for a moment to speak to her. "Do your best child," he said. "You don't want to return here do you? And if you aren't a good girl, that's what will happen." He lowered his voice. "And if you should lose your virtue you will also face eternal damnation." He looked gratified to see her response, and added, "So don't invite mischief."

He shook hands with Mr. Bennett, but Harriet declined the back of hers and looked directly at Mary when she said, "Any hint of trouble and I'm telling you, she'll be right back on your doorstep!"

Ronald winked at Mary as if to say, don't take any notice of her, then he tucked her arm into his and led her down the front steps towards the waiting cart.

When Mary heard the loud, resonant 'clump' of the doors closing behind her she had to stop and look to make sure she was actually shut out, and not inside the cursed building. For years she had wanted to get out of that detestable place, but now that part of her life had ended as suddenly as it had begun, she felt quite stunned.

"Go on," grumbled Harriet, giving her a shove. "You sure you aren't daft?"

Mary did as she was told and climbed up into the cart. As they drove away she promised herself Mr. Brimley need never worry. She had no intention of losing her virtue, or ever setting foot inside those walls again.

When Mary had gone, Tilly sat down on Mary's bed and allowed her tears to flow unchecked. Though she was relieved a home had finally been found for the girl she wished desperately it had been to somewhere else. She sighed deeply. Her dear girl was free at last. But after all these years, to think she was going back there.

She looked up as Kat came to the doorway.

"So, she's going back to the place of her making then," Kat said.

"I'm well aware of where she's going," snapped Tilly.

"Now there'll be proper retribution," Kat said. "The Lord always..."

Tilly leapt up off the bed. How she ever kept her hands off her sister's neck she didn't know. "You can quote the Bible all you want to me Kat, but I'll always be left wondering just who your god is!"

 

 

 

Chapter 2

 

It was market day and more people than usual thronged the streets.

Ronald patiently threaded the cart in and out of the chaos, avoiding those who made no attempt to get out of his way, so involved were they in their own business. A man leading a cow, who could hardly walk because her udder was so full, stumbled out in front of them and Ronald pulled up sharply and got down to grumble to him about it.

"He's always been one for the underdog," Harriet said, turning down the corners of her mouth. "Sarah says he's far too soft."

Mary wondered who Sarah was, and felt a niggle of concern: she thought that anyone who said unkind things about Ronald couldn't be very nice.

There were no more incidents to delay them, and they trundled away from the hustle and bustle of the market town and headed towards Bovey Tracey where they turned westward and began their trek down through Reddaford Water, on towards the moors.

There had been a shower of rain earlier that day and everything smelled as if it had been newly made. A fine, fading mist hung in and about the treetops, drawn there from the ground by the sun. Primroses peeked from the hedges and Mary closed her eyes and took a deep breath of the sweet, pure air that to her smelled like paradise.

Going up over Trendlebere Down they saw several rabbits and once, though Harriet cursed it, a fox ran across the road in front of them and dove between some boulders. Swallows swooped around the cart from time to time and Mary smiled and held out her hands to them. Only a bird, she thought, who must not be able to bear captivity, would be able to really understand how she felt.

When Ronald wasn't struggling to keep the cartwheels out of the deep ruts and potholes left by the ravages of winter he chatted about Blackthorn farm.

"The missus does a bit of dressmaking," he said. "That's why she needs your help. We have an old dog, a few sheep and pigs, and some cows, chickens and ducks." He chuckled. "'Tis like Noah's Ark really. Know who Noah is do you?"

Mary nodded her head enthusiastically. Of course she knew who everyone was in the Bible, she had learned in Sunday School even though they thought her too simple to take anything in.

At the top of the Trendlebere Down Ronald pulled the cart off the road to give the horse a rest. "Just look at that view Mary dear," he said. "Look how far we have come. That's Bovey down there, and further still Newton Abbot. And there, as far as you can see is the seaside. I don't expect you've ever been there have you? No, well, we'll have to take you there one day."

Harriet clucked her tongue. "Ronald," she warned, reprovingly.

But Mary barely heard her. She stared in awe at the view. She felt as if she was on top of the world, and it was almost impossible to think she had been down there only hours ago with little hope of escape.

After a while they set off again, wending their way through Manaton and past the church to Langstone Cross, where they turned towards the parish of North Bovey.
"Not long now my dears," Ronald said cheerfully. "We'll soon be home."

Mary's smile faded. The word 'home' made her feel strange and her stomach
churned uncomfortably. During the transition of the journey she hadn't thought too much about the destination, but now she began to worry. Oh, not about the work, she was used to that; getting up at four in summer, five in winter and working until nightfall when she sank exhausted onto her pallet. Rather, she feared Matthew, the boy the Bennetts had mentioned. What if he bullied her, or even worse tried to do things to her like some of the boys in the workhouse? She was very frightened of boys.

And then there was the Sarah that Mrs. Bennett had spoken of. Was she their daughter? And would Mary have to share a room with her? What if Sarah didn't like her and was hurtful and unkind, like others who had made fun of her and called her horrid names because she couldn't speak?

Ronald sensed the change in her and reached out to pat her hand. "Don't you worry my dear," he said, kindly. "Everything will be all right, you'll see."


When they reached Blackthorn, Mary got down off the cart to open the gate. She saw the pleasure on Ronald's face, though her effort to please made very little impression on Harriet, who grumbled about all the tasks there were now to do. Even when Ronald said, "Well, you've got the maid to help you now," she didn't respond enthusiastically.

Mary followed the cart down the yard and looked with pleasure towards the farmhouse. The front of it was smothered in greenery, and she imagined the joy of waking in the summer to the scent of flowers that might later bloom. Wave upon wave of strange and interesting scents wafted towards her on the warm evening air. At her feet, daisies poked their faces from between the cobble-stones, and she bent to touch their delicate faces.

"Whatever's she doing now?" Harriet grumbled, getting down from the cart and clucking her tongue. "Picking weeds? Mary Jay? You come here this instant!"

"Now don't forget the maid's been shut up in that awful place," Ronald said, but sighed when he saw his wife wasn't going to give that any thought at all. He turned from her scowl to the tall, red-haired youth, who had appeared from the barn. "Hello Matthew," he said, relieved to see a smiling face. "Everything all right then?" He beckoned Mary closer. "Look who we've brought home with us. This is Mary Jay. And Mary, this is Matthew Steer my dear. He came from a workhouse some years ago. We don't have any chillern of our own."

"He's as daft as you are dumb," Harriet threw over her shoulder as she went in. "But like you, he's all we could get."

Ronald frowned and turned away to the back of the cart.

Matthew's face darkened. When Harriet was out of hearing he whispered, "Take no notice, Mary. She's got one of those tongues that gets sharper with use."

Mary had heard Tilly use that expression, and smiled shyly. Matthew met her smile with candid blue eyes, and Mary sensed he was not only as kind as her new master and that she would be able to trust him, but that Mrs. Bennett was very wrong in her estimation: Matthew looked far from being stupid. Feeling less anxious now she helped to carry the packages into the farmhouse.

The ceilings were low and beamed and the windows had deep sills set into the cob walls. There was a large table in the center of the kitchen with several chairs placed around it, and there was a rocking chair beside the huge fireplace. What a contrast, Mary thought, to the austerity of the workhouse.


***

"Now didn't you find Mary helpful?" Ronald asked Harriet after they had finished putting everything away.

As would be her way in the future Harriet spoke as if Mary was either not in the room, or was deaf. "She's willing enough I will say that," she said, "but they're bound to try and make an impression when they first come, look at what we took her from. Time will tell if she can keep it up." She looked at Mary. "Come on then, I might as well show you upstairs."

Ronald looked apologetic on Harriet's behalf, yet nodded encouragingly for Mary to take her bundle and follow his wife. They went through the stair door to the first floor and along the landing to another steep and narrow set of stairs. Harriet wheezed her way to the top and paused to get her breath before opening a door into a small room.

"As befits your station, you will sleep here," she said. "You're expected to keep yourself and the room clean and tidy. You must sweep and dust, and change your bed linen regularly, as well as doing your other duties. When you've put your things away you can come downstairs for some supper."

Because of their steep and difficult negotiation Mary hoped her mistress wouldn't venture into the attic too often. For that is where she was, in a room so tiny some would have considered it an insult. But Mary didn't care about that. Compared to what she had been used to she felt like a princess in a castle.

She ran to the window to look out. She was above the front porch and had a fine view over the farm. It was the time of evening when the farm animals were settling themselves in for the night, before the nocturnal creatures began their own foraging and sounds. Mary thought of the ducks and ducklings that Ronald said lived by the pond in the orchard. He had also told her they had an old pony as well as the young horse, and that if she behaved herself she might be able to ride him. He had chuckled and added, that was, if the pony behaved himself too. Mary could hardly wait for morning when she could go and explore.

She looked back into the room and her eyes filled with tears. Though her mistress might believe she was of the lowest order, to her this room with its small cot, chest of drawers and one rickety chair was more than she could have ever hoped for. A bubble of joy welled up inside her and she whispered a prayer of gratitude before getting down to business and unrolling her bundle of clothes.

She placed her Bible on the small bedside table. She couldn't read it but liked looking at the pictures, and knew by heart all the stories that went with them. She opened the cover and ran her finger over the inscription inside. To my darling child, Mary. From your loving mother, Celine. Mary knew it said this because Tilly, who could read, had told her. And Tilly had written underneath, Love from Tilly Black, Wolborough 1809 and had put several crosses, which she said stood for kisses.

Mary had lost her mother at a very early age and could only vaguely recall that she had been a genteel and rather fragile person. She had often wondered why there had been no family to take care of her when her mother died; surely they had not been alone in the world?
She thought this because there were other memories too, though they were elusive and made little sense. But once she'd been taken to a house, had it been to a relative? An imperious old lady had peered at her through an eye-glass and said, "so this is the child". There had been two men in the room. One had shouted at her mother and Celine had
become distressed, caught Mary's hand and pulled her from the room. Mary could remember running down a driveway with the air so thick with drizzle, her mother's face had looked as if it was streaming with tears. It was not long after that her mother had died and she had been taken to the workhouse.

Mary had heard them say it was shock that had taken her voice away. And indeed, what greater shock could there have been than being torn from her dead mother's side and incarcerated in such a place? To begin with it had been thought that she would not thrive. Nor might she if Tilly Black hadn't come along. Because it was Tilly's kindness and encouragement that had sparked in her the will to live. "No matter what circumstances you find yourself in, you must always try your best," was Tilly's motto, and gradually she had instilled hope into Mary that her life would not stay the same: that one day she would leave the workhouse.

Mary had often wondered what might have happened to her if Tilly hadn't been there to protect her, though until that very moment she had never once considered why Tilly had looked after her so well. And wasn't it strange that she had today echoed the same words spoken by her mother as they had run down the driveway? Words that she would never forget because of the tone of Celine's voice when she had cursed those with the hearts of granite...

"Mary Jay, where are you?"

Harriet's imperious voice rose from below and Mary quickly put on one of her aprons and ran downstairs. She was met by an aroma of stew bubbling in a pot hung over the fire, and her stomach growled hungrily.

Ronald was sitting at the table and patted the chair beside him for her to sit down beside him. Matthew who sat opposite, nodded kindly at her. Mary was so overcome with gratitude for her change of fortune she ran over to Harriet and shyly put her arms around her.

"Lord alive," Harriet said, shrugging her off. "For goodness sake sit down do."

"Aw, the poor maid's only grateful I dare say," Ronald said.

Harriet grunted and began dishing up the supper: a stew of dumplings, bacon, onions and greens. On the table were wheaten bread, cheese and doughcake.

After grace was said they began to eat, and Matthew smiled as he watched Mary tucking into what she had been given. "I've never forgotten the first proper meal I had after I left the workhouse," he said. "'Tis likely you never will either, Mary."

Ronald smiled. "Well, that's all over for the both of you now."

"Humph," Harriet said. "You're here to work, not to be fed like pigs for market. And there's to be no nonsense either do you understand?" She looked meaningfully from one to the other. "And no time wasted gabbing."

She almost choked on her mouthful of stew as she suddenly burst out laughing.

"But what am I thinking? She'll hardly stop anyone working with chatter, will she? There's that about it I suppose." And she bent her head to eat, oblivious of the embarrassment on Ronald's face, or the protective and anxious look Matthew gave Mary as he saw tears start to her eyes.

 

 

 

Chapter 3
1810

 

A year later Ronald Bennett was still as nonplused by his wife's attitude towards Mary as he had been in the beginning. He had also gathered a multitude of battle scars on the girl's behalf, and was feeling very weary about it all.

He wasn't tired of Mary, not by any means. She who tried so hard to please, who worked solidly and cheerfully at anything she was set to do, was the light of his life. He liked to imagine she was his own little girl, and had endless patience teaching her this and showing her how to do that. She responded to his kindness like a flower opening its petals to the sun, and he was proud of how quickly she learned. As Mr. Brimley had said, she was indeed a bright little thing, and when Harriet wasn't around he lent new meaning to the words by calling her his angel.

With Mary in his life he looked forward to each day with renewed vigor. Even the winter did not seem as long because he had the evenings to look forward to when he would sit with her in front of the fire and tell her stories. More often than not Matthew would be there and in a kindly way tease his master into telling them about the 'olden days'.

"You may laugh," Ronald said, looking at them sadly, "but you'll be old before you know it." And he would feel a pain in his heart when he thought of Mary growing up and away, and leaving him as inevitably she must one day.

Harriet rarely joined in their camaraderie as if it wasn't the proper thing to do, but hovered in the background, and if she could find any excuse to break them up she would.

"If she smiled," Matthew said once to Mary, "she'd crack her face." And though Ronald overheard and gave him a reproachful look, he didn't chide him. Matthew was like a son to him if truth be known, and he would have been the happiest man on earth if only Harriet's attitude had been different.

Not that he blamed her entirely. Her detestable sister Sarah, whose visits had become more frequent since Mary's arrival, didn't help. It had been she who had put the foul seed into Harriet's mind about the dairy, saying Mary could be a witch and thus turn the milk sour. "What bleddy nonsense!" Ronald had said, when he found out. He, who so rarely swore. "The woman's mazed, and you're no better if you believe her."

But even though Harriet had subsequently allowed Mary to work in the dairy, he noticed a rowan twig suddenly appear on the lintel of the door, professedly to ward off the evil eye.

Mary was aware of the tension between her master and mistress and wished for all the world it was not so. She realized Sarah was an instigator who had for some reason taken an instant and violent dislike to her. She had once heard her say that Harriet was nursing a viper in her bosom. Though Mary was stung, it would have hurt more if she had ever heard Sarah say a kind word about anyone. She came to dread her visits because the outcome was always the same: Harriet would generally find fault with her afterwards and make an excuse to send her to bed early without supper.

Though Matthew tried his best to reassure her, Mary's constant companion was insecurity; her frequent worry was that one day Ronald would tire of soldiering for her, and Harriet would have her way and try and return her to the workhouse. And always, always, Mary was determined that would never happen.


***

After a good dry spell of weather, for the first time that year the roads were passable enough to allow the Bennetts to go to Newton Abbot.

The day before they went, Harriet gave Mary a list of chores she must do in her absence, one of which was to deliver a dress she had altered to Betsy Berry, the innkeeper's wife. "And mind she pays you before you hand it over," she said.

Sarah, who had arrived with a list of errands for her sister to perform in the market town, added viciously, "Yes, they Berry's be as tight as a duck's ass."

Mary fled from their laughter. She didn't think the Berry's were mean at all. They had been very kind and generous to her, and like Matthew and the master they treated her as if she was a normal person, not some freak they had the misfortune to meet.


The next day, a few hours after the Bennett's cart trundled off down the lane, Mary finished her chores and set off in the opposite direction to the village. The hedge tops were a mass of fragrant snowy blossom that would later turn into sloe berries from which Ronald would make wine. The hedges themselves were full of primroses and bluebells that were Mary's favorite.

Betsy was delighted to see her and gave her a big sloppy kiss for the flowers that the girl thrust into her hands. She was pleased to see the dress too and said she had waited ages for it to be altered, Mrs. Bennett must be very busy indeed. However, when she saw the bill her eyebrows shot up and she added, "I'm sure I don't know why at these prices!"
She noticed Mary's forlorn look. "But don't you worry dear," she added. "I'll go and see Tom for the money. Want something to eat I bet?" And she bundled Mary along to the kitchen where she was given cold duck, pickled onions and the crust off a new loaf of bread. Mary ate every morsel on her plate and was given more, plus a large piece of apple pie and clotted cream.

"That poor maid's always starving," Betsy told Tom. "That bleddy woman should be reported."

"And who is there around here that'd listen?" he said. "No one cares my dear."

"Well, it isn't right. I'd like to see that old skinflint spend a week in a workhouse. That'd bring her down off her high horse. You should see what she's charged me for that dress, it's downright robbery. I've a good mind to send her what I think it's worth, not what she's asking!"

She returned to the kitchen and handed Mary the money wrapped in a piece of paper. "You can give her this," she said. "Between you and me I shan't be asking her again, she's got too expensive and there's a woman in Moreton they say is just as good."

It wasn't the first time Mary had heard this from one of Harriet's customers and she felt distressed; when her mistress considered she wasn't making enough money her tongue was sharper, and -- always out of Ronald's hearing -- her threats to return Mary to the workhouse uttered more frequently.

"Don't worry," Betsy said, giving her arm a squeeze. "It isn't your fault is it? Now run along home dear, before the old tarter gets her hackles up."

Mary set off down the passage. She held her breath as she passed the bar. She hated the cold, bitter smell of beer and was afraid of the men's raucous laughter. She hurried on across the yard and almost collided with a man riding in around the corner on a chestnut horse. The horse was spirited and fidgeted a little, and his rider patted his shoulder and spoke to him soothingly.

"Lovely horse, Mr. le March, sir," Tom said admiringly, coming up behind Mary and putting an arm protectively around her shoulder.

"Like Hector do you?" Justin le March said, smiling proudly. "Well, he's young yet and has a long way to go, but I think we'll get there. He seems particularly intelligent and I thought I'd train him for young Master Thomas." He laughed. "I believe they'll both be ready for each other at the same time."

"That boy's lucky to have you," said Tom, speaking of the squire's son. "But we haven't seen you for a while, sir?"

"No, not since Squire Gordon's funeral I believe. I have been overseas."

Tom chuckled. "Aye sir. Thought you looked a bit healthier than if you'd just spent the winter 'round these parts."

Justin's saddle creaked as he shifted. "Particularly bad was it?"

Tom glanced towards the bar and said quietly, "In some ways, yes sir. 'Tis the very devil to get paid by some folk."

Justin's expression darkened. "I'll have a word with him, Tom. Good day to you then." He nodded and moved Hector forward.

"He's no fool," Tom said, quietly. "'Tis a pity he wasn't the new squire instead of his brother-in-law. Useless bit of work that he is." He shook his head sadly. "Dark days ahead my dear. Dark days ahead."

Mary was aware that few people liked the new squire, who had taken over the manor when his father died. She had often heard Harriet and Sarah gossiping about him. They reckoned Hartley Gordon would more than likely come to a bad end, and Harriet had said she hoped she would live long enough to see it. Sarah had cackled about no woman being safe with him around, and how there'd be mouths to feed that he'd have the pleasure of making but not the trouble of raising. Sometimes Mary cheeks burned with what they said in front of her. They appeared to forget though she couldn't speak, her ears worked perfectly well.

"You hurry along home now," Tom said, interrupting her thoughts.

Mary smiled and hugged him, then crossed the yard. At the corner she turned and saw he was still watching after her. How kind most people were to her, she thought sadly, if only her mistress could be the same.

She gave Tom one last wave and then turned the corner. Sometimes she went to sit on the stone trough in the middle of the village green by the well, but today she had too many chores to do. She'd dallied enough as it was and knew she should get off home. Nevertheless, before she ran down the hill she paused to listen, as once she had heard a cuckoo call from that very spot. She had been fascinated to hear the sound bounced back and forth across the meadow by an echo, but today there were hardly any sounds at all apart from the occasional barking of a dog somewhere in the village.

She ran on down and climbed the stile at the bottom into a meadow full of buttercups. She lingered to look for minnows in the stream that chortled its way through beds of marsh marigolds and wild cress to the river, then jumped across and ran through the lush grass and climbed the stile out into the lane. Further down the road there were two bridges, and she paused again to peer over the edge to see if she could spy any trout. Ronald had said the plumpest ones lived under there, where the water was quite deep.

He had told her that last night when he had crept upstairs to put a crust of bread and a chunk of cheese inside her door. He had also said she could ride the pony to the village that day if she wished. However, he had come up from the orchard that morning to tell her he was sorry, but the old fool had put his foot down a rabbit hole and was lame.

Not that Mary minded walking except it increased her appetite, which was voracious enough as it was: Harriet's helpings were rarely enough to satisfy. Matthew sympathized, and at the supper table tried to help by passing things to her without Harriet noticing. But though she was grateful, Mary discouraged him from doing this, not only because he might get into trouble, but because Harriet wasn't over generous with his portions either and she considered he needed every morsel for himself.

Sometimes he would share tid-bits with her that his beloved Clara had managed to get from the manor kitchen. Clara was the lady Leonora's maid, and also helped look after young Thomas. Apparently the lady was often not well, and Matthew said since the old squire had died things had become very lax. Matthew was by no means a gossip, but Mary thought he found some of the things Clara told him were quite shocking and that he repeated them to her to share the burden, knowing they could go no further. One thing he had told her was that the squire had only married his wife for her money, and if it wasn't for her brother Justin having some control over the estate there'd be nothing left by now. He also said she should be watchful of the squire. He was a philanderer and no woman was safe when he was around.

She was ruminating these things and still on the bridge when she heard horses approaching. To avoid either being run down, or startling the creatures, she kept into the side, pressing herself against the cold, rough granite of the bridge. She saw it was Justin le March accompanied by a man on a black horse she knew to be the squire. But whereas Justin gave her a wide berth and rode on, the squire didn't. He reined in and sat appraising her. A shiver of fear went through her. In distress she looked at Justin who stopped and turned in the saddle.

"Come on Hartley," he said. "We have things to do and I have to get back to Whitmouth, never mind that Leonora will be worried out of her mind."

"She's always worried," Hartley drawled. "You go on, I'll meet you there."

It wasn't quite a memory, yet something about his voice struck a chord and Mary, recalling Matthew's warning, suddenly panicked. She glanced over the bridge into the water: if he dared reach out and touch her she would leap over, she swore she would.

"For God's sake man," Justin said, "have you taken leave of your senses? Leave the poor girl alone."

Hartley sighed. "Boring old Justin," he said, meeting Mary's terrified eyes with a rakish wink. And only reluctantly kicked his horse on.

Mary's world wavered beneath her. She was trembling so much she could hardly stand, let alone move one leg in front of the other. When they were gone she wobbled over the second bridge and fell onto a grassy bank, her heart pounding so hard she thought it would explode.

Matthew was in the yard when she came up from the orchard, her breast heaving, her face red with exertion and fear. She had run all the way home across the fields to avoid the lane, tearing her legs on the brambles and sticks in the hedgerows over which she climbed.

He threw down his fork and ran towards her. "What's happened, Mary? What's up?" he cried.

They had found a way to communicate, and she indicated for him not to worry, but that she was upset because she had taken overly long in the village, and now was worried she would not get all her work done before the Bennetts came home. Followed by Matthew's still suspicious eyes, she rushed indoors: even if she could have told him her fears, he, who said he loved her next to Clara, couldn't have done anything to help her. To someone like Hartley Gordon, Matthew was just a simple farm laborer; worthless, and expendable.

***

When the Bennetts arrived home from market they both had long faces.

Harriet banged things about and told Mary to put them away and look sharp about it. Then she took her own purchases into what she called her sewing room and slammed the door behind her, only to storm out again shortly afterwards to ask Mary if she had delivered the dress. Mary had forgotten all about it and felt in her pocket for the money.

Harriet clucked her tongue as she unwrapped the piece of paper. "And what's the meaning of this?" she demanded.

"What's up?" Ronald said.

"The damn cheek of it!" Harriet cried, showing him the note. "Giving me 'what she thinks my work is worth'. Who the hell is she when she's at home? Mary'll have to go over again tomorrow, it's her fault for not collecting the full amount."

"Don't be daft," he said. "How can it be her fault? How could she say?"

"I knew we shouldn't have taken in that dimwitted slut!" Harriet retorted.

Ronald's face suffused with anger. He looked quickly at Mary and said, "Go and shut the chickens in, there's a good maid. You haven't done anything wrong."

"That's right," Harriet said, in a tight, bitter voice. "Take her side."

Normally Ronald would have backed down to keep the peace, but he'd had enough that day and now turned on his wife. "I'm getting damned sick and tired of this," he said. "You've been acting queer ever since Sarah was here yesterday. Blaming Mary for some trumped up reason and sending her to bed with no supper last night. Poor maid, I dare say she's known starvings enough."

"No one goes to the workhouse without good reason," Harriet cried. "She didn't weed that path properly and she has to learn. Letting anything live that's got a face on it..."

"It's just her way. She's kind, that's all," Ronald said, bitterly. "Unlike some others I could mention."

"Oh yes? And who might that be?" Harriet's eyes flashed challengingly.

"You know who I mean. Nobody can please you or your bleddy sister. And every time she comes here and stirs things up you find some excuse to take it out on the maid."

"It's you who's making excuses!" Harriet cried.

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"You don't need me to tell you."

He met her eyes. "Tell me what? Come on, out with it. I know you've got a bee in your bonnet about something."

Harriet lifted her chin. "I'm beginning to think Sarah was right. You got that maid for yourself!"

"What filth is this?" he growled.

Immediately she was on the defensive. "Why else would you make such a fuss of her then? It's Mary this and Mary that. Anyone'd think I didn't exist."

"I care about Mary, it's true," said Ronald. "But I only treat her like any decent soul should be. Is that what you and your sister are jealous of? Someone who's never had a home or someone to love her? This time won't last forever, Harriet. Soon she'll be fully grown and will find a young man..."

"She is fully grown," Harriet said, stonily.

"She's the same age as our own maid would have been," Ronald continued, the painful memory too much for him to heed her interruption. "Imagine if we'd perished and our maid had had to live in such a place for all those years. Wouldn't you be glad when she found some kindly people to take her in? Wouldn't you want them to treat her right? I just don't understand you, Harriet."

"Oh don't you! She's ripe for the picking, that's what Sarah says. And she says you'd have to be blind not to see it."

Ronald looked at his wife as if he had never seen her before. "Then I am blind," he said. "I haven't seen it because I haven't been looking for it. It's just in your bleddy filthy minds!" He walked out and slammed the door, saying he intended to spend the night in the barn with Matthew.

***

Harriet was in a furious temper the next morning. In a voice that indicated she had made up her mind and there would be no argument about it, she told Mary that she would have to return to the Blackbird and collect the rest of the money, and hadn't better show her face at home until she had.

Mary could not look to Ronald to save her this time as he had already left with Matthew to go to Moretonhampstead. After she completed her morning chores she took the note Harriet gave her and set off for the village. There was no lightness in her step this time.

She wished the old pony had not been lame as she could have ridden him there and back in no time, though she doubted the mistress would have been agreeable: though Ronald liked to see her and pony getting along, Harriet did not approve. Sorrowfully, Mary thought her mistress seemed to be disapproving of her more and more every day.

When she reached the inn Betsy hugged her to her ample bosom. "What, back again? Want more duck I bet? But what's that face for? What's wrong my dear?"

Mary drew the note out of her pocket and reluctantly handed it over.

Betsy frowned as she looked at it. "Well, I go to say," she murmured, but none-the-less disappeared into the bar to find her husband. "I shall have to pay her," she told him. "You should see the look on that little maid's face. Wouldn't surprise me if she didn't get the blame. Oh Tom, whatever have I done?"

"Don't you fret, my dear, Mary won't hold it against you," he said. "Give her a piece of your apple pie, that'll cheer her up."

But when Betsy tried to entice her into the kitchen Mary glanced towards the bar and declined. "She seemed in a dreadful hurry to go," said Betsy, to Tom later. "I hope I haven't upset her so she won't come again."

"You know our Mary wouldn't do that," Tom said, consolingly. "She's probably been told not to linger and you know she's a good, obedient maid."

But all the same Betsy worried all day, and for some reason felt she should have run after Mary and escorted her home to Blackthorn.


 

 

Mary's Child Copyright 2001. Celia A. Leaman. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.

 

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Author Bio

Celia was raised in Devon, England. After she emigrated to Canada in 1980 she had short stories published in magazines in the UK, Canada and the United States. One of these was translated into brail; another sold to a South African magazine. She also wrote and co-directed a play, performed on Galiano Island, British Columbia.

Celia writes in several genres. Her novel, Mary's Child, the first in the Dartmoor Series, reflects her love and knowledge of the South Devon moors. Both it, and a short story, "Jay, the Farmer's Daughter" (in No More Regrets and other stories available from Twilight Times Books) were inspired by the legend of Jay's grave, near where she used to live. There are two sequels to follow Mary's Child: PastPresent I: Awareness, and PastPresent I: Resolution.

Twilight Times Books has also published Unraveled and Deceitful Hags, mainstream, humorous novels spun around the Gulf Islands in British Columbia.

Over the years Celia's interest and focus on writing has grown. She is a tutor for Writer's Online Workshop where she interacts with students wishing to focus on the short story. Outside the home she works as a Librarian Assistant.

Celia lives in British Columbia with her husband.

TTB titles:
Deceitful Hags
Mary's Child
PastPresent I - sequel to Mary's Child
Unraveled

Visit Celia's web site

 

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  Reviews

If you love the era of Thomas Hardy, when England had strictly drawn class lines between the gentry and the commoner, but despair at the bleakness so many authors portray of that era, then Mary's Child by Celia Ann Leaman may be just what's needed ... Leaman weaves a rich tapestry in Mary's Child, giving each character unexpected complexity and depth. It reaches beyond its genre to embrace the flavor of its era, bringing it to life with a vividness seldom matched. The emphasis of the novel is not upon romance, but upon the characters that live within this fascinating world. I couldn't help comparing Tess of the D'urbervilles to Mary's Child as I read, and I must admit that Leaman's novel captures the flavor of that era equally well while reaching a far more satisfactory conclusion. I heartily recommend Mary's Child."
Reviewed by Cindy Penn, Senior Editor, Wordweaving.
 



Rating ***** 5 Stars

Mary Jay's story gives us all hope that we are put on this earth for a purpose and that according to how we live and how we die, if we are ever remembered again. It also reminds us that we don't have to be a Duke or Duchess to be remembered. Though the telling of Mary Jay is a sad one, and the emotions Ms. Leaman brings to the story are everything from joy to anger, it is in itself an uplifting book of what life is all about. It teaches us that life is not to be wasted and just how precious the gift can be.
Reviewed by Rita Hestand for Romancing The Web
 



"Though the novel depicts the grim reality of a time when life was terribly hard for the common people, especially for women, and though dark tragedy mars its unfolding, Mary's Child is a moving, even hopeful, book. I cannot recommend it highly enough."
Reviewed by Jane Bowers, Reviewer for Romance Reviews Today.
 



Mary's Child is chock full of characters, all deftly developed ... Celia Ann Leaman has crafted a legendary epic that expertly weaves decades of heartache, lies, tragedy and eventual triumph into a very enjoyable read.
Reviewed by Kathy Kehrli for Inscriptions Magazine.

 

 

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