The Maiden of Mayfair (Tales of London Book #1)by Lawana Blackwell
This heartwarming Victorian rags-to-riches story puts orphan Sarah Matthews into a posh Berkeley Square home. Tales of London book 1.
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August 4, 1869
he privilege of joining Mrs. Abbot's weekly forays to the greengrocer's was granted with the understanding that two rules be obeyed without exception. First, there would be no "sampling" of any fruit or vegetable, no matter how meager the breakfast porridge ration happened to have been.
Secondly, talking to strangers was strictly forbidden. Such a rule would not be necessary were the Saint Matthew Methodist Foundling Home for Girls located in fair Kensington or even bustling Charing Cross. But in the shadowy northern part of Drury Lane, with its crumbling tenements, gin shops, and abandoned factories, more than one girl had been approached by a seedy character offering "good wages" in exchange for her virtue, youth, and health.
Sarah Matthews was sorting out the best potatoeswhich, considering the state of Mr. Brody's merchandise, meant those not quite so soft or covered with gnarly eyeswhen a voice interrupted her concentration.
"Got a penny, Miss?"
She looked to her right, her left hand automatically hiding in a fold of her gray linsey-woolsey gown. The boy seemed not much older than herself, though rotted teeth and an accumulation of grime made it impossible to tell. Sarah shook her head and went back to sorting. Thankfully, Mrs. Abbot was still conversing with Mr. Brody over last week's bill. "Please go away!" she urged under her breath. "You'll have me in trouble!"
With a sigh, she turned to him again and froze. Beggars were as plentiful as coughs in Drury Lane, but what captured her attention was the knot tied at the end of the ragged sleeve. He raised his arm for her closer inspection, obviously in the hopes of gaining her pity and the coin she did not possess.
"Got it caught in a cutter at th' match factory on Bow," he said with a shrug.
Tears stung Sarah's eyes. She tried to follow all rules to the best of her ability but could not stop herself from whispering, "I'm sorry. But I've no"
Guiltily she looked up at Mrs. Abbot, who stood with Mr. Brody near the turnip crates. She could hear scurrying footsteps behind her. "I'm sorry, Mrs."
"You get outer here!" Mr. Brody shook his fist in the direction of the fleeing boy. "I'll have the police on you!"
"Oh, please don't, sir," Sarah pleaded. "He was just asking for a farthing."
Ignoring her, the greengrocer turned again to Mrs. Abbot and muttered, "This were a decent place to live when I were a boy. Now the thieves is thick as flies."
"There is more than one kind of thief, Mr. Brody," Mrs. Abbot said in a quiet voice.
In the dead silence that followed, Sarah cringed inwardly at the implied accusation. It wasn't that she feared injury to Mr. Brody's feelings, for it was well-known even among the girls of Saint Matthew's that the Irishman overcharged for his stale produce. But he towered over Mrs. Abbot's middle-aged form, and the rage mottling his beefy face made Sarah fear that he would do her physical harm or, at the very least, refuse their patronage.
"What is that you're sayin', Mrs. Abbot?" he demanded.
Sarah hastened to the cook's side. Not that she had the brawn to defend anyone, but at least she could pull her away if necessary.
Fortunately, Mrs. Abbot backed down. "I meant nothing," she said, then turned to Sarah while Mr. Brody glowered over her shoulder. "Have you finished with the potatoes?"
"Well, I'll help you. I've got to get back to my kitchen." Five minutes later Mrs. Abbot was dropping coins into Mr. Brody's hand and reminding him meekly to place the greens on top in the delivery wagon this time instead of allowing the potatoes to crush them.
"Will you tell Mrs. Forsyth?" Sarah asked, lagging at the cook's elbow because walking side by side was hindered by the congestion on the narrow pavement.
"That you spoke to the boy?" Mrs. Abbot slowed her steps and turned her face to the side as much as possible. "You know better, Sarah. Why did you do it?"
His hand, Sarah wanted to say, while her own left one stayed burrowed in the coarse folds of her gown.
Before she could reply she caught sight of the boy, sitting at the base of a broken streetlamp. He raised his head to catch Mrs. Abbot's eye while lifting his knotted sleeve. "A penny, kind lady?"
Mrs. Abbot's steps resumed their brisk pace, for a penny in a beggar's pocket meant one less for the food needed to feed over sixty orphans and workers at Saint Matthew's. Sarah averted her eyes from the grime-covered face. But a curious thing happened when they were some six feet past him. The cook halted abruptly and turned to Sarah.
"Watch where yer goin', old woman!" sneered an old man in worn sailor's garb who had to sidestep to keep from colliding with the two of them.
Mrs. Abbot paid him no mind. Anyone who became unnerved at every angry voice in Drury Lane was a prime candidate for Bedlam. "His hand?"
"An accident at the match factory," Sarah whispered.
With a sigh Mrs. Abbot withdrew her purse from her apron pocket, both hands holding it protectively close. "You may give him a farthing. It's all we can spare."
"Yes, Mrs. Abbot. Thank you."
It was the first time Sarah had held even so meager a coin, yet she was more than willing to surrender it to the boy, who gave her a smile and tipped the bill of his worn cap. "God'll bless you fer it!" were the words that accompanied her back to Mrs. Abbot's side.
He has already, she thought, for she could have easily shared the poor lad's fate.
Naomi Doyle kept her voice soft and low on the staircase of the Berkeley Square town house. She was fond of singing but only did so when no one was in earshot, for a schoolmistress had told her when she was nine that the only way she could hope to stay on key would be to keep a brass one in her pocket.
She had not sailed far on the deep,
Before a king's ship she chanced to meet.
She paused at the ground-floor landing and looked down the corridor. Marie Prewitt had stationed herself outside the sitting room in an armchair. As she drew closer, Naomi realized she was asleep, with needlework lying idle upon her lap. Delicately she cleared her throat. The lady's maid let out a snort and jerked up her head.
Oh all you sailors, come tell me true,
Is my sweet William on board with you?
"Qui est la!" Marie exclaimed, blinking, then narrowed her eyes. "Why must you slip about so! Like a ghost you pop up from nowhere and startle me!"
Your snoring may have something to do with it, Naomi thought but restrained herself from saying. Not out of intimidation, for skilled cooks were in high demand in Mayfair, London's most prestigious residential district. But after having been reared in a household where disharmony was as thick and pervasive as London fog, she did all she could to keep her temper in check and avoid confrontation. So instead she lifted the hem of her skirt just high enough to reveal a pair of laced brown leather shoes.
"These are why you didn't hear me."
"Actually ... boy's." Naomi's feet were as small as her body was slender. "They're for playing cricket, the shop assistant said, but they make the kitchen floor feel like a cloud."
"They are hideous."
"No one but Trudy sees them when I'm cooking."
Marie wrinkled her nose primly. "If I were the last person on earth, even then I would never wear anything so gauche."
Naomi had no difficulty believing that. They were both in their early thirties, but while her own toilette had shortened over the years to a twisting of her strawberry-blond hair into a comb, Marie still plastered meticulous spit curls across her forehead and fastened hairpieces among her looped braids. Were the gulf between them not so wide, Naomi would have advised her that a pleasant expression would do more for her appearanceand consume far less time.
"Will you please stand aside?" she said with a glance up at the door. "Mrs. Blake asked me to look in on her after lunch."
"Later. Madame wishes to see no one at present."
"With all due respect, I would rather hear that from her."
Marie's dark ringlets quivered with the shake of her head. She waved a hand in the direction of the staircase. "I forbid it. Go back to your kitchen and I shall send for you."
This was too much. In the hierarchy of service, a lady's maid commanded higher status than a cook. But Naomi had little patience for priggery. "Miss Prewitt, you will kindly remove yourself," she said with controlled calmness, "or you'll be fetching your own trays from now on."
Panic filled the amber gold eyes, for Marie could not bring herself to condescend to dining in the servants' hall with the others. Naomi obliged her with trays delivered up the dumbwaiternot because Mrs. Blake required it, but for selfish reasons. Mealtimes were simply more pleasant without her.
She had to step back as Marie rose to her feet and pulled the chair aside by the arm with shrill scraping along the lustrous oak floor. "Thank you," Naomi told her, wincing out of pity for the parlormaid who would have to wax the area again.
Marie only folded her arms under her generous bosom and looked away.
The voice that answered Naomi's knock was so soft that she wasn't sure if her ears were hearing Who is there? or Go away!
"It's Naomi, Madam. You wished to see me about the dinner party menu."
Again, an unintelligible reply. She had no choice but to turn the knob and slip inside. The curtains were drawn and the lamp extinguished. Mrs. Blake sat on the divan, a figure in black, looking very out of place against the cheerful honeysuckle-patterned upholstery.
"I said I did not wish to be disturbed," her employer said in a fragile voice.
"Why, Mrs. Blake ... what's wrong? Is it your rheumatism? I could get some"
"Nothing is wrong. Leave me now."
But Naomi could not obey in good conscience. She reached back to close the door, ignoring Marie's protests from the corridor. "It's not good to sit alone in the dark with your troubles, Madam. Won't you allow me to open the drapes?"
"Is there nothing I can do for you?"
After a space of silence, the woman asked, "Can you turn back time and give me my life to live over?"
Naomi crossed the carpet in her silent shoes, and without being invited to do so, she perched herself on the edge of the divan next to her mistress. It was the first time she had taken such a liberty in her fourteen years of employment. "Would that we all could have a second go-around. Regret is a hard burden to bear."
Mrs. Blake clutched a black-bordered handkerchief so tightly in one hand that the blue veins stood out starkly against the spotted skin. Black lace covered her gray chignon, and fine wrinkles now webbed the cheeks that were once as clear and smooth as porcelain. Her eyes, like chips of pale blue ice, were rimmed in red. "How would you know?"
The face of a young man entered Naomi's mind from so many years ago. She was as flighty as a goose at seventeen and unable to bear the mockery her family made of the severe lisp in his voice. The last she had heard he owned a bakery up in Leicester and was happily married with several children. And only one man had attempted to court her sincea loud, boorish factory bailiff. "I'm not unfamiliar with regret, Madam."
Sighing, the older woman rubbed her brow. "I just came from the churchyard. It's been nine years. Nine years today."
How could I have forgotten? Naomi glanced at a portrait on the east wall of a young man dressed in a scarlet hunting coat and cord breeches, with a hound lounging serenely at his feet. "I'm so sorry."
"He would have been thirty-two on Christmas past, you know. I used to tell him that only the most special people were born on Christmas Day." There was pleading in the liquid eyes fastened upon Naomi's face, as if they begged her to understand the depth of her loss.
"Yes, Madam," was all Naomi could say. Even for kindness' sake she could not offer the usual comfortthat her son was safe and happy in heaven. It would be akin to blasphemy after the way Master Jeremy lived his life.
"He was such a good boy at heart," Mrs. Blake murmured, wiping her nose with her handkerchief. "So trusting. So easily led by his friends. If not for them, he would never have been there that night."
The there to which she referred was Haymarket, where Jeremy Blake was attacked by robbers after leaving a brothel. Naomi touched the blue-veined hand. "You mustn't torment yourself. He wouldn't have wanted that." That seemed not quite so disingenuous, for perhaps there had been some fragment of affection in his heart toward the mother who doted upon him.
Pathetically Mrs. Blake seized upon that condolence and nodded, a wistful smile at her lips. "No, he never wanted me to be sad."
"See? So why don't you"
The smile faded. "But you don't know how it is, being all alone with no family."
That was so, for Naomi did have sisters and cousins in various stages of distemper with one another all over England. And, of course, sixteen-year-old William, who would be leaving to study science at Lincoln College at Oxford in two months. She had fetched her nephew from Leicester seven years ago after a scarlet fever epidemic claimed the lives of his parents and infant brother. And he had been under Naomi's guardianship ever since.
Mrs. Blake, on the other hand, had no remaining siblings nor had her late husband, Arthur, who passed away of apoplexy two years ago. The love they must have shared in the beginning found other outlets over the yearshis in an immensely successful shipping line, and hers was lavished upon their son.
"You have your friends," Naomi reminded her. "And you'll have such a fine time with them next Tuesday. I've just come across a recipe for Salmon a la Genevese"
"My friends." The sorrow in Mrs. Blake's voice turned to bitterness. "Augusta Stafford decided to leave for Sussex early with her brood. It wouldn't occur to her that I might care to winter away from London as well."
You would never leave this house for that long. It was her only remaining link to her son. The self-pity was beginning to grate upon Naomi's nerves. "But that still leaves Mrs. Gill and"
"And were it not for my money, I daresay they would not grant me a nod in the park! Besides, they prattle on incessantly about their children and grandchildren."
Not to mention Mrs. Fowler trying to hire away your cook, Naomi added silently. And for almost a third again over her present wages. The woman had even offered a position to William. Naomi felt there was nothing wrong with taking advantage of such opportunities and might have been interested were she not aware of the long procession of cooks through the Fowler kitchen over the years.
"Now, now, Madam. It's the day that has made you sad. Why don't you sit in the garden? It's quite pleasant in the shade. And I'll bring you a cup of tea."
For a second Mrs. Blake seemed to consider this. But then her shoulders rose and fell with another sigh. "No. Leave me."
"Very well, Madam." Naomi stood. She was halfway across the room when an unsettling thought gave her pause just long enough to alter the rhythm of her steps. Just as quickly she dismissed it and continued. But her hand was no sooner on the doorknob when the thought returned, more insistently. Is this from you, Father?
"Naomi?" The voice from behind had an irritated tone.
Releasing the knob, Naomi turned. The subject had been a forbidden one for over thirteen years. By bringing it up she could be sacked on the spot. Even though positions in other householdsbesides the Fowlers'were out there, she rather liked working for Mrs. Blake, who never interfered with the way she ran the kitchen and generously allowed William time off for schooling.
If you don't speak about it, who will? asked the voice inside her, becoming impossible to ignore. She crossed the carpet again.
"What is it, Naomi?" Mrs. Blake asked, frowning. "I thought I made it clear that I've changed my mind about that dinner party."
"May I sit again?"
Mrs. Blake gestured with her hand, and Naomi perched herself in the same spot. "Forgive me for speaking bluntly, but it is very possible that you do have family."
"I beg your pardon?"
"I'm referring to Mary Tomkin, Madam."
The lined cheeks turned ashen. "What has she to do with me?"
More than you care to admit, Naomi thought. True, Master Jeremy had been the one to take advantage of the scullery maid, but it was Mrs. Blake who dismissed her when it became obvious she was carrying a child.
"She was a strumpet," Mrs. Blake said. "I'll not have women like that in my employ."
"She was barely fifteen." Mary Tomkin might have been silly and flirtatious around Master Jeremy, but in Naomi's opinion he bore the greater responsibility, being five years older at the time. "And if her child is still living, it would be your grandchild."
"That's simply not true. Jeremy promised me he had nothing to do with her."
In for a penny, in for a pound, Naomi thought. She might very well find herself packing her trunk tonight, but the pump had been primed. She would speak her piece now after so many years. "Begging your pardon, Madam, but would you expect him to say anything else? Don't forget, Mary and I shared a room."
Naomi was a brand-new kitchen maid back then. When her warnings to the girl about Master Jeremy's flatteries and little gifts had no effect, she even dared to approach Mrs. Blake with her worries.
"My son was reared to be courteous to the servants" had been the woman's frosty reply. "And he's certainly above amorous entanglements with scullery maids."
It had been difficult enough to speak on Mary's behalf in those days. What Naomi had not been able to tell Mrs. Blake, because she so desperately needed her position, was that she, too, had been the object of her son's attempted "amorous entanglements" to the point that she would not walk out in the garden alone at night for fear of meeting up with him.
"Fifteen years old," Naomi pressed. "Still a child herself."
This time Mrs. Blake did not deny her probable relationship to Mary Tomkin's offspring. "Don't forget. Mr. Blake was just as adamant as I was about it," she said defensively. "Besides, I only did what would have been done in any other home."
True, Naomi thought. The surest way an unmarried female servant could be dismissed would be to turn up in a family way. Only God knew how many of those situations involved the sons of the household. "It was a difficult situation," she admitted.
"Then why do you bring it up? It's very cruel of you, Naomi, to torment an old woman so."
"Cruel?" Naomi shook her head. At least I've a bit of money saved to tide William and me over. "Foolhardy, perhaps, considering you can sack me on the spot. It just seemed the right thing to say, with your sitting here grieving."
"Well, you've only made matters worse."
Stifling a sigh, Naomi rose to her feet. "Then I do beg your pardon."
"I'll have that tea now," Mrs. Blake said in a peevish tone.
"Very well, Madam."
When Naomi reached the door this time, Mrs. Blake added, "And you might as well have Marie go down with you for it. She has nothing better to do."
Any small satisfaction Naomi would have gotten from that order was overshadowed by a wearying sense of failure. She was so certain that God had directed her to speak. But she wondered now if she had been guided instead by her own guilt over not informing Mrs. Blake of her son's advances toward her back when that information could have possibly helped Mary.
By the time she had reached the kitchen and dispatched a sulking Marie with a tray and teapot, she was feeling a measure of comfort. God's ways are not our ways, she reminded herself. And, knowing how people generally balked at anything that threatened to lure them from the routine of their lives, what had she expected? Mrs. Blake to clasp her heart and gush with gratitude over the reminder that she could have a grandchild somewhere in the slums of London?
A seed had been planted. Whether Mrs. Blake chose to nurture it or allow it to die for lack of interest was in her own hands. God was the One who planted the seeds, but He generally left the tending of them to people.
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