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A Father for Daisy
By Karen Abbott
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2011 Karen Abbott
All rights reserved.
'I'M REET SORRY, Miss Rossall but I can't offer yer a job.' The woman shrugged apologetically. 'Not wi' yer havin' the child, yer un'erstands.'
The door was shut in her face and Bea turned away. Yes, she did understand. She'd heard the same excuse before, countless times. How many days had she been trudging the streets from one establishment to another? Six? Seven? She'd lost count.
The cold wind and sleeting rain didn't help. It was fortunate she had been able to leave Daisy with Mrs Hurst, her housekeeper, or there would be two of them soaking wet. She fumbled in her pocket for her handkerchief and her frozen fingers encountered the letter she had received a few days ago. Her lips tightened as she pulled it out, a frown marring her face. Was this to be her only option? She had no need to read it again to remember what was written; the note was terse and concise.
Miss Rossall, I am aware of your current predicament. If you care to call at my house after 8:00 p.m. I have a proposition to put to you. Cyril Ackroyd.
Bea compressed her lips. The man was on the parish church council of her dear departed papa's church. She knew him – but didn't particularly like him. He was the owner of Ackroyd's spinning-mill and was renowned for being a ruthless taskmaster. He tolerated neither lateness nor absence and any dispute brought instant dismissal, forcing many a family into the workhouse.
So, what might his proposition be? Since the death of his wife almost two years ago, worn out by constant child-bearing, his two surviving sons had been packed off to a boarding school, so it wasn't her teaching skills that he had in mind. More than likely his latest housekeeper had given notice – or simply walked out – and he was in need of a replacement. Could she bear it? She hated the way his eyes raked over her – and the touch of his fingers made her flesh recoil. Fingers that stroked her hand when she handed him a hymn-book or slid up her inner wrist if she had been unable to avoid his departing handshake.
But did she have any other option? She glanced down at the sodden envelope again. The reality of the past few days was telling her, 'no'. She had to admit she was disappointed that none of their parishioners had felt able to help her in any way. Had none of them any compassion towards her? It seemed not.
At precisely eight o'clock that evening Bea knocked on the front door of Mr Ackroyd's house and eventually heard the sounds of the bolts being withdrawn and the grating of a key in the lock. She almost turned tail and ran – but what would it gain? She forced herself to stand her ground and face the mill-owner with cool reserve.
It was Mr Ackroyd himself who stood framed in the partly opened doorway. She supposed he was in his late forties, but his bewhiskered, angular face made him look older. His expression darkened. 'In future, Miss Rossall, kindly remember that I expect my employees to use the side door, not the front one.'
'Good evening, Mr Ackroyd.' Bea greeted him in level tones, refusing to be cowed by him. 'I was not aware that I am an employee of yours. I have come in response to your note.'
'You took your time, miss!'
His tone was frosty but, strangely, that made Bea feel more confident.
'Yes. I am a busy person, Mr Ackroyd.'
'Busy traipsing the streets looking for employment, I hear,' he sneered. "Ave yer been successful?'
His tone made Bea realize that he knew she hadn't. Had he had her followed? 'Nothing definite,' she prevaricated, thankful that there were one or two other options that she might investigate. 'I wondered what you had in mind by "a proposition"?'
He smiled thinly. 'I thought you might. You'd better step inside.' He moved back, opening the door a little wider and, with some trepidation, Bea stepped over the threshold and swept past him. It wasn't the first time she had entered the house. She had visited a number of times when Mrs Ackroyd was 'lying-in' after her several miscarriages and still-births. She strode firmly towards the front parlour and stepped inside.
A fire was burning in the hearth, with two armchairs pulled close beside it. Bea seated herself on the one at the far side of the hearth. Somehow, she felt safer sitting down. It put her into the category of 'visitor' instead of a potential employee attending an interview. Not that she felt relaxed. On the contrary, she perched herself stiffly upon its outer edge, her hands folded in her lap, hoping that the pose concealed the fact that her limbs were shaking.
She looked up at Mr Ackroyd, her expression one of pleasant enquiry, but she spoke no word. Let Mr Ackroyd be the one to lay his cards upon the table.
He made no move to seat himself. Bea could tell that her refusal to act in a servile manner angered him, but before she had time to decide whether or not to soften her manner a little he was towering over her. 'I'll come straight to the point, Miss Rossall. I know that tha's in somewhat of a predicament and, although it's of your own makin', I'm willin', out of Christian charity, tha understands, to overlook it. Once tha's installed 'ere, I'll make sure that the rumour-mongers are dealt with.'
'Installed?' Bea queried, taken aback by his declaration. 'In what capacity? Your housekeeper? I presume Mrs Blackstock has left.'
'Call it what yer will. A man 'as needs – and needs a woman to fulfil 'em. Yer're no innocent maid, so I needn't mince my words. It's no wonder tha father died so sudden. It were probably out o' shame.'
Bea felt the blood drain from her face and then, just as quickly, flood it again. 'My father died of lung consumption,' she declared, her voice shaking, her mind still grappling with the rest of his words. 'You ... you expect me to come and live here as a ... a kept woman? How dare you insult me so?'
She began to rise from the chair but Mr Ackroyd pushed her down again. 'As I said, call it what yer will. Some would call yer a slut from the gutter. And yer needn't try to look offended by me words. Yer've a babby back at the vicarage to prove it. An' what yer'll do fer some slip of a lad in a back alley, yer'll do fer me in the comfort o' me own 'ome! An' yer'll do it right now! Try before yer buy is my motto!'
Terrified, Bea shrank back against the chair but he followed her down and bodily fell upon her, his mouth slobbering over hers as his hands probed and squeezed through the thickness of her coat, yanking at the buttons in his attempt to get it out of his way.
Bea had never been attacked in such a way and her actions were purely instinctive. As Ackroyd partly lifted the weight of his body away from Bea in an attempt to pull away her clothing, Bea's arms were released from his weight and she swiftly clawed at the only part of him that was within reach – his face. Her nails weren't long, but they were strong and they left deep red gouges down both cheeks.
At the same time, pushing her left foot firmly against the floor as a lever, she jerked her right knee convulsively upwards in an attempt to kick him. Her knee was between his legs and slammed up against his body with considerable force. She didn't know the effect such an action would have upon a man but she saw its result. His body arched with pain and he toppled over on to the floor, both his hands now clutching between his legs.
Bea scrambled out of the chair and ran to the door. She glanced back, to make sure that he wasn't about to follow her. He was struggling to get to his feet, his face still twisted in pain.
'This ain't th'end of it!' he snarled, unable to regain his footing. 'I'll 'ave yer! Nobody else'll tek you on! Tha'll come crawling to me in the end! But get rid o' that bastard babby o' your'n afore tha does!'
Bea didn't wait to hear any more. She knew he was in no condition to follow her but, even so, she wasn't going to linger. She ran into the hall and out through the front door, slamming it shut behind her. Then, head down against the rain, she hurried back to the sanctuary of her home to sob out her story on to Mrs Hurst's motherly shoulder.
Beatrice hardly slept. Her thoughts raged back and forth, as she wondered how she might have handled it differently. Had she innocently led Mr Ackroyd to believe she might welcome his attentions? She didn't think so. He repelled her too much for that to have happened. But what was she to do next? She would never find employment with Ackroyd's hand against her!
Sleep must have overtaken her at some point but it was still dark when she awakened. She lay still for a moment, until the total silence in the room alerted her senses that something was different. She sat up in bed and listened intently.
Daisy! Where was Daisy? She had dreamed that Daisy was missing and she had been stumbling through darkened streets trying to find her. In a panic, she swung her legs out of bed and rushed to the door, grabbing hold of her dressing-gown from the end of her bed. She struggled into it as she crossed the small landing.
'Mrs Hurst? Where's Daisy?'
She could hear sounds from the kitchen – comforting, normal sounds of fire-irons against the range. As she stumbled down the stairs she heard Mrs Hurst's voice murmuring words that could only be being spoken to a baby, and she felt her panic subside. Daisy was safe. It had all been a nightmare.
No, not quite all of it! Not the part Mr Ackroyd had played. That had been real. And there would be repercussions, of that she was sure. She had innocently thought she could stay here, in this place where she had lived all her life, among the people she had grown up with. But now she knew she couldn't. She'd have to go away.
Bea found solace in tending to Daisy. The daily routine that had been thrust upon her last November, wreaking havoc with her parochial duties, had brought her through the recent dark days since her papa's death – and now it eased the distress she had experienced the previous evening at the hand of Cyril Ackroyd. Holding Daisy against her shoulder, she stared blankly through the window into the vicarage's small garden. It wasn't a pretty garden, though her mama, God rest her soul, had always managed to coax some hardy flowers to keep on growing in spite of the soot-and-smoke-laden air from Salford's many factory chimneys. She swayed from side to side as she patted the tiny back with unaccustomed absent-mindedness. They were now more than halfway through March. The snowdrops were past their best and soon daffodil shoots would be pushing their way through the tired soil, eager to burst into flower.
A tiny burp near to Bea's ear drew a momentary response. 'Good girl!' she murmured soothingly. 'Let's see if you want the rest of your milk.' She sat down again on the wooden rocking-chair by the meagre fire and teased the tiny rosebud mouth open with the rubber teat, smiling with satisfaction when Daisy began to suck lustily once more.
Bea settled back against the cushion, allowing her thoughts to drift again, marvelling that Daisy, so tiny that she was thought to be about two months premature, had tenaciously held on to the thin thread of life instead of joining her young mother, buried in the churchyard. Now she was thriving and sleeping four hours between feeds – which was just as well, Bea thought grimly, since Daisy's future was as uncertain as her own.
'So, what yer gonna do, Miss Beatrice?' Mrs Hurst asked, pausing in her task of peeling some potatoes to put in the pan simmering over the fire. 'The new vicar'll be 'ere within a week. I know 'e said as 'ow yer could stay on fer a couple o' days until 'is family arrives, but it's only puttin' off the evil day, especially after what 'appened last neet! Eh, I wish I could tek yer wi' me to me sister's, but she's 'ard pressed to find room fer me, let alone you and the babby. Tha poor father'll be turnin' in 'is grave! 'Im as was as good a soul as ever lived! Yer've only to think 'ow 'e let yer take in young Elsie when 'er own folks disowned 'er! An' now what's going' ter 'appen to 'er babby and you, miss? That's what I'd like ter know!'
Beatrice rested her eyes on Daisy's contented face for a moment before she gave reply. She found it fascinating to watch the different expressions that flickered across the baby's face – eyebrows puckering as if in deep thought; tiny rosebud lips pursing as if in disapproval; a fleeting smile whispering across her small face. Oh, but what joy she had brought to this twice-bereaved household.
Tiny crystal teardrops glistened in Bea's eyes. She blinked them away and fumbled in her pocket for her handkerchief. 'I miss Papa, Mrs Hurst. How will I manage without his wise counsel?'
'Eh, I know, Miss Bea. 'E were a good man. His whole parish misses 'im. But think on what he taught you, an' always do what you know to be right. When your mama died, he felt lost fer a while but he always said he learned to lean more on his Saviour – and that's what got 'im through. That's what'll get you through as well!'
Bea nodded. Her lips compressed together as she was forced once more to confront her precarious future. How dare Mr Ackroyd treat her so! 'He thinks Daisy is mine,' she murmured aloud, with incredulity in her voice. 'Is that what everyone else thinks? Is that why no one will employ me? Surely I never looked as though I was with child?'
'What with your papa bein' so ill and you lookin' after Elsie as well, I don't suppose tha went out much, Miss Bea,' Mrs Hurst suggested. 'An' with it being winter, tha'd always got tha coat on. Folk'll always put two and two together and make five, especially if someone like Mr Ackroyd makes it 'is business to drop a hint here and there.'
'And Elsie begged us not to tell people about her expecting a baby,' Bea agreed. 'She hoped her parents would take her back once the baby was born – but all they wanted was her body for burial. They left Daisy with us. It never occurred to me that people would think she is mine. Even so, I can't bring myself to abandon her to the workhouse. But it seems I cannot get a job whilst I have her in my care.'
It wasn't as if she were asking for charity. She was intelligent; she could work hard. Hadn't she helped Mrs Hurst look after the vicarage and her dear papa since she was ten years old? A fact that hadn't escaped Cyril Ackroyd's notice. But he'd wanted both sides of his bread buttered – and with no thought of marriage in mind. Not that she had wanted such! Not with him! And he'd said she had to get rid of Daisy! The very thought tore at her heart. No, Cyril Ackroyd's way out of her predicament had had no appeal whatsoever.
Her other possibility of employment lay in the fact that she had taught a small group of ragged children their numbers and letters for a few hours every day in the vicarage's front parlour, and had managed to place some of them on the first rung of the ladder of employment. A ladder on which she was now finding it impossible to get a foothold. What she needed was a position as schoolmistress, with a small house attached or a room near by that she could rent.
But first she must resolve the problem of Daisy! That wasn't going to be easy, but she would not abandon the baby. She had promised Elsie.
She straightened her shoulders and took a deep breath. 'I'll have to do what we talked about the other day,' she said decisively. 'I will go to Horwich and try to find Mr Dearden. That is where the newspaper cutting that Elsie had says he lives. "Mr Henry Dearden of Endmoor House,"' she quoted from memory. 'That sounds as though he is a gentleman, does it not? Well, if he is as fine a gentleman as Elsie would have had us believe, surely he will want to know of the existence of his small daughter and take on the responsibility of rearing her? Even if he is unable to recognize her openly, surely he will know of some kind lady who would rear her as one of her own, for some kind of recompense?'
Being more worldly wise than the late vicar's daughter, Mrs Hurst sniffed. 'The gentry don't always do as they ought, Miss Bea. 'E'd no right ter tek advantage o' such a young girl as Elsie Brindle, swearin' he loved 'er and promisin' ter marry 'er! And what was 'er employer thinkin' of, casting 'er off like that, when she ought ter 'ave taken more care of 'er female staff? It's a wicked world, Miss Bea, that's what it is!'
'Yes, but we've got to believe in the goodness of man, too,' Bea persisted. 'Papa always used to say that goodness is there, if only you look hard enough!'
Excerpted from A Father for Daisy by Karen Abbott. Copyright © 2011 Karen Abbott. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
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