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'I can't take you no further, lass, seein' as I'm bound for Wicklethwaites Farm and you're wantin'Rawlesden,' the carter informed Marianne in his broad Lancashire accent, as he brought the cart to a halt at a fork in the rutted road. 'You must take this turning 'ere and follow the road all the way down to the town. You'll know it before you gets there on account of the smoke from Bellfield Mill's chimneys, and then you keeps on walking when you gets to the Bellfield Hall.'
'Why do you say that?' Marianne asked the carter uncertainly.
She needed to find work—and quickly, she acknowledged as she looked down into the too-pale face of the baby in her arms. A lone woman with no work and a baby to care for could all too easily find herself in the workhouse—as she knew already to her cost.
The rich might be celebrating the Edwardian era, and a new king on the throne, but nothing had changed for the poor.
'I says it on account of him wot owns it—aye, and t'mill an' all . There's plenty round here who says that he only come by them by foul means, and that the Master of Bellfield wouldn't think twice about ridding himself of anyone wot was daft enough to stand in his way. There's one little lass already disappeared from these parts with no one knowing where she's gone. Happen that's why he can't get no one working up at the hall for him. No one half decent, that is…'
'He doesn't sound very pleasant,' Marianne agreed as she clambered down from the cart, and then thanked the carter as he handed her the shabby bundle containing her few possessions.
'I still dunno wot would bring a pretty lass like you looking for work in these parts.'
Marianne could tell thatthe carter was eager to know as much about her as he could—no doubt to add to his stock-in-trade of gossip. He had already regaled her with several tales of the doings of those who lived in the town and the small farms on the moors beyond it, with a great deal of relish. Marianne suspected it was an enclosed, shut-off life here in this dark mill town, buried deep in a small valley between the towering Pennine hills.
Her large brown eyes with their fringing of thick black eyelashes shadowed slightly in her small heart-shaped face. The carter had referred to her as a 'pretty lass,' but she suspected that he was flattering her. She certainly did not feel like one, with her hair damp and no doubt curling wildly all over the place, her clothes old and shabby and her skin pinched and blue-looking from the cold. She was also far too fine-boned for the modern fashion for curvaceous women—the kind of women King Edward favoured.
'It's just as I explained to you when you were kind enough to offer me a lift,'she answered the carter politely. 'My late husband's dying wish was that I should bring his son here, to the place where he himself was born.'
'So you've got family here, then, have you?'
'I haven't.' Marianne forced herself to sound confident and relaxed. 'My late husband did have, but alas they, like him, are dead now.'
'Aye, well, it's natural enough that a man should want to think of his child following in his own footsteps. Dead now, you said?'
'Yes. He…he took a fever and died of it,' Marianne told him. It would not do to claim too close an acquaintance on her late husband's part with anything that might enable others to ask her too many questions.
'Well, I hope you manage to find yourself a decent place soon, lass. Although it won't be easy, wot with you having the babby, and you don't want to find yourself taken up by the parish and put in t'workhouse,' he warned her, echoing her own earlier thoughts.
'They don't suffer strangers easily hereabouts. Especially not when they're poor and pretty. T'master, is a hard man, and it's him wot lays down the law on account of him owning t'mill.'
Despite her best intentions Marianne shuddered— but then who would not do so at the thought of ending up in a parish workhouse?
Images, memories she wanted to banish for ever were trying to force themselves upon her. That sound she could hear inside her head was not the noise of women screaming in hunger and pain, but instead merely the howl of the winter wind, she assured herself firmly.
'You've no folk of yer own, then, lass?'
'I was orphaned young,'she answered the carter truthfully, 'and the aunt who brought me up is now dead.'
'Well, think on about what I just said,' the carter told her as he gathered up the reins and clicked his tongue to instruct the raw-boned horse between the shafts to move on. 'Keep away from Bellfield and its master if you want to keep yourself safe.'
There it was again—the unmistakable admonition that the mill and its master were dangers to be avoided. But it was too late to ask the carter any more questions, as the rain-soaked darkness of the November evening was already swallowing him up.
Picking up her bundle, Marianne pulled her cloak as closely around the baby as she could before bracing herself against the howl of the wind and setting off down the steep rutted and muddy track the carter had told her led into the town.
Marianne grimaced as mud from the uneven road came up over the sides of her heavy clogs and the sleet-laden wind whipped cruelly at her too-thin body, soaking through her cheap cloak. The carter had talked of how winter came early to this part of the world, and how it wouldn't be too long before it saw snow. She had only walked a mile or so since the carter had set her down at the fork in the road that led down off the Lancashire moors into the town below, but already she was exhausted, her teeth chattering and her hands blue with cold. What money she'd had to spare on the long journey here had gone on food and a good woollen blanket to wrap around the baby she was cradling so protectively.
The carter, with blackened stumps where his teeth had been, and his habit of spitting out the tobacco he was chewing, might not have been her preferred choice of companion, but his kindness in taking her up with him had brought tears of relief to her eyes. His offer had come after he had heard her begging the station master at Rochdale, who had turned her off the train, to let her continue her journey—a journey for which she had told him she had a ticket, even if now she couldn't find it. She certainly couldn't have walked all those extra miles that had lain between Rochdale and the small mill town that was her destination.
Now, as she struggled to stand upright against the battering wind, the moon emerged from behind a cloud to shine down on the canal in the valley below her. Alongside the canal ran the railway—the same railway on which she should have travelled to Rawlesden. She could see smoke emerging from the tall chimneys of the mills. Mills that made fortunes for their owners whilst becoming a grim prison for those who worked in them. She had never so much as visited a mill town before, never mind been inside a mill. The aunt who had brought her up had owned a small estate in Cheshire, but it was no mere chance that brought her here to this town now.
The baby gave a small weak whimper, causing her heart to turn over with sick fear. He was so hungry and so weak. Her fear for him drove her to walk faster, slipping and sliding on the muddy road as she made herself ignore the misery of her cold, wet body.
She was halfway down the hillside now, and as she turned a sharp bend in the road the large bulk of an imposing mansion rose up out of the darkness in front of her, its presence shocking her even though she had been looking for it. Its façade, revealed by the moonlight, was grim and threatening, as though daring anyone to approach it, and was more that of a fortress than a home. A pair of heavy iron gates set into a stone wall barred the way to it, and the moon shone on dark unlit windows whilst the wind whipped ferociously through the trees lining the carriageway leading to the house. She had known what it was even before she had seen the name Bellfield Hall carved into the stone columns supporting the huge gates.
A thin curl of smoke from one of its chimneys was the only evidence that it was inhabited. No wonder the carter had urged her to avoid such an inhospitable-looking place. Marianne shivered as she looked at it, before turning away to comfort the baby who had started to cry.
It was then that it happened—that somehow she took a careless step in the muddy darkness of the cart track, causing her ankle to turn so awkwardly that she stumbled heavily against the gate, pain spearing her even whilst she hugged the baby tightly to her to protect him.
As she struggled to stand upright she found that just trying to bear her own slender weight on her injured ankle brought her close to fainting with the pain. But she could not fail now. She must not. She had given her promise, after all. She looked down into the town. It was still a good long walk away, whilst the hall… This was not how she had planned for things to be, but what choice did she have? She reached for the heavy gate handle and turned it.
IT HAD taken her longer to walk up the carriageway to the house than Marianne had expected, and then she'd had to find her way round to the servants' entrance at the rear. The smell from the mill chimneys was stinging her throat and eyes, and the baby's thin wail warned her that he too was affected by the smoke. A stabbing pain shot through her ankle with every step she took.
Relief filled her when she saw the light shining from a window to one side of the door. Here, surely, despite what the carter had told her, she would find some respite from the harsh weather, and a fire to sit before— if only for long enough to feed the baby. She was certain no one could be so hard-hearted as to send her out into a night like this one. Milo had often talked with admiration and pride of the people of this valley and their generosity of spirit. A poor, hard-working people whom he had been proud to call his own. He had shown her the sign language used by the mill workers to communicate with one another above the sound of the looms, and he had told her of the sunny summer days he had spent roaming free on the moors above the valley as a young boy. He had desperately wanted to come back here, but in the end death had come and snatched him away more speedily than either of them had anticipated.
She raised her hand toward the door knocker, but before she could reach it the door was suddenly pulled open, to reveal the interior of a large and very untidy kitchen. A woman emerged—the housekeeper, Marianne assumed. For surely someone so richly dressed, in a bonnet lavishly trimmed with fur and feathers and a cloak lined with what looked like silk, could not possibly be anything else. Certainly not a mere housemaid, or even a cook, and no lady of the house would ever exit via the servants' door.
The woman was carrying a leather portmanteau, and her high colour and angry expression told Marianne immediately that this was no ordinary leave-taking.
The man who had pulled open the door looked equally furious. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with thick dark hair and a proudly arrogant profile, and both his appearance and his demeanour made it plain that he was the master of the house and in no very good humour.
'If you think you can turn me off with nothing but a few pennies and no reference, Master Denshaw, then you'll have to think again—that you will. An honest woman, I am, and I'm not having no one say no different…'
'An honest woman? So tell me then, Mrs Micklehead, how does such an honest woman, paid no more than ten guineas a year, manage to afford to clothe herself in a bonnet and a cloak that even to my untrained male eye would have cost in the region of ten times that amount?'
The woman's face took on an even more crimson hue. 'Given to me, they was, by Mr Awkwright what I worked for before I come here. Said how I could have them, he did, after poor Mrs Awkwright passed away on account of how well I looked after her.'
'So well, in fact, that she died of starvation and neglect, you mean? Well, you might have hoped to starve me into submission—or worse—Mrs Micklehead, with your inability to perform any of the tasks for which you were employed—'