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About the Author
Janet Woods' previous books include "The Stonecutter's Daughter "and "Where Seagulls Soar,"""
Read an Excerpt
Straw in the Wind
By Janet Woods
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2010 Janet Woods
All rights reserved.
Sara Finn walked along a short carriageway that curved slightly upwards towards Leighton Manor. The evening sun came from behind, pushing her shadow tall along the ground. It was twice her length, which was five feet and four inches from head to heel.
Eighteen years old, and although Sara had suffered hardship in her short life, she was still young enough to enjoy the beauty nature had to offer and the optimism to hope that her lot would improve in time. Today she was taking her first step into the future, and what a blessing the day was.
The air was golden and warm, drenched with the drifting scent of roses carried on a faint breeze. When Sara rounded the bend her eyes widened because the overgrown grass in front of the house was a mass of dancing poppies, harebells and mayweed. To her right was a spreading oak, and to her left a cobbled yard with a small stable block. Behind the house a gentle downward incline of meadow was divided by a stream at the bottom, then it rose gently upwards towards a copse leaning against the skyline.
She stopped, and placing the bag she carried on the ground she shortened her gaze to Leighton Manor. It was a modestly sized manor built of stone, one easily managed by five servants – at least, that's how Mrs Pawley had described it. Sara absorbed the sight; the house was larger than she'd expected, about the size of the rectory she'd just left. It glowed a soft pinkish yellow in the late afternoon light. The windows were large, and designed to frame the views so they could be admired. The glass sent back gleams of orange. Three steps led up to frosted-glass panelled doors, which stood open for anyone to walk inside.
'My first position,' she said with some satisfaction, because she couldn't count her childhood on the farm in Gloucestershire as a position even though she'd worked there from dawn to dusk from the age of eight through to twelve. Nor could she count the time in the workhouse, where she'd packed pins and picked oakum until her fingertips were blistered and raw and callused. And neither could she count the three ... no – it was almost four years since she turned fourteen. She'd spent them as a maid to Reverend Pawley, his eight children from his first marriage and their stepmother, Elizabeth, who'd once been the children's governess.
The reverend had never paid Sara a penny piece for her labours when he'd given her notice to leave, saying he'd taken her from the workhouse for her own good, that he'd fed, housed, clothed and educated her along with his own children. She should be grateful for that, and be happy that his wife had given her a reference after what had taken place.
'The cheek of him to accuse me of enticing his eldest son,' she muttered. 'I didn't invite Albert to corner me in the kitchen and try to kiss me, or to put his grubby hands where he wasn't welcome to. Hah!' she tossed indignantly into the air.
There was an ache in her feet and calves after her long walk.
'You'll be picked up at the station,' Elizabeth Pawley had promised her. But nobody had been there, though she'd waited over two hours.
'While the cat's away the mice will play,' the stationmaster had said mysteriously. 'Likely that the stable lad arranged to meet his sweetheart and has forgotten the time. Leighton Manor is about two miles away.'
'You mean I've got to drag this trunk for two miles, when I can hardly lift it?' Sara groaned. As well as her clothing the small trunk had several books inside, given to her as a parting gift by Elizabeth Pawley.
'I'll miss you,' Elizabeth had said. 'Keep up your reading and writing, Sara. You have a quick mind and a retentive memory that will hold you in good stead.'
'Leave the trunk if you like. I'll keep it safe in my office until the lad turns up,' the stationmaster had offered.
Sara hoped that her trunk would be safe as she closed her eyes for a few seconds. She had so very few possessions, but she was grown up, at last, and had paid employment thanks to Elizabeth Pawley, who'd had a friend who knew somebody who'd known somebody else who needed a housemaid. She intended to save every penny she earned, so she could buy her own house ... oh, not as fine as this one perhaps, but a home of her own just the same.
She'd have a husband too, one who was pleasant as well as handsome and who wouldn't beat her ... a tutor perhaps, because she liked learning new things and he could teach her when the dark winter cold pressed like a wolf against the door. In the summer they'd tend to their garden together. They'd have children too, so she'd have a family she could call her own. But that was only one of her dreams for the future – sometimes they changed.
The thought of being part of a family brought happiness surging up inside her. When she opened her eyes again she picked up her bag, hugged it against her chest and danced round in circles until she was out of breath, dizzy and laughing.
She'd better not use the front door, she thought, even though it was standing wide open in invitation. She hurried towards the stables and then went past them and around the corner to a door at the back. She knocked.
There was no answer. The door opened when she tried the handle and she stepped inside. She was in a kitchen; Sara's nose wrinkled at the state of it. There was a woman asleep in a chair with a tabby cat in her lap; her shoes were on the floor and her dirty bare feet were propped up on another chair. Her snores sounded like wood being sawn.
Sara supposed it was Mrs Cornwell, the housekeeper ... though it could possibly be the cook. She'd been led to believe there was one. A bottle of port and a half-empty glass sat on the table in front of the woman.
When the cat jumped down and wove about her ankles Sara stroked its ear so it began to purr throatily. The figure in the chair snorted, then subsided into slumber again. Sara took her by the shoulder and gently shook her. 'Mrs Cornwell?'
A cough brought Sara's gaze to the inner door, where a neat, blue-eyed woman of about forty stood. 'I'm Mrs Cornwell. You must be my replacement.' She came forward, her gaze sweeping over her face. 'You're younger than Elizabeth Pawley's letter led me to believe, but it's a small house, so I dare say you'll manage if you stick to a routine.'
'I thought I was hired to be a housemaid, not the housekeeper.'
'You must have got mixed up then, because Mrs Pawley definitely said you'd been their housekeeper and had three years' experience. I can show you the reference letter if you wish.'
Sara had no intention of losing this position. Running a house wasn't all that difficult, and a maid's wage was much smaller than that of a housekeeper. 'Yes, I did. And there were eight children in the household, as well.'
'Well there are no children here, though Frederick Milson and his sister, Jane Milson, visit on occasion. They are kin to the late Mrs Leighton. You have to be careful when they're here, because they complain if things aren't to their liking.'
Sara took note of that. 'Why are you leaving the position, Mrs Cornwell?'
'I'm going to be wed. Mr Perkins is a widower, an estate manager up in Wiltshire, and he has three children who need a mother.' She gave a bit of a sigh as though it wasn't exactly a joyous event she was looking forward to. 'Perkins is a good, hard-working man.'
'I hope you'll be happy.'
'Thank you, dear. It's no good moping about your lot in life, is it? You've got to make the best of it you can, and seize any opportunity that comes your way to better yourself.'
Exactly Sara's own sentiment, except the thought of marrying into a family like the Reverend Pawley's wasn't really an enticing thought. She would much rather be in love, or better still, have a handsome young man return her love. A little thrill ran through her, because she was still young enough to believe in romance and hope it would come her way.
'The master will be home in a day or two, though I don't suppose the visit will last long. He gets bored easily when he's here. I've only stayed on to show you where everything is. Maggie,' she shouted at the cook, 'look lively. Miss Finn has arrived.'
Maggie's eyes opened and she gazed dubiously through them at her. 'She's a bit on the young side for the position isn't she, Mrs Cornwell?'
'That's what I thought, but the master won't see any difference, will he now? Besides, she has an excellent reference from her former employer. Where's Fanny? She was supposed to get the rooms ready.'
'Gone with Giles on the cart, I reckon. She said she wanted to visit her mum, and Giles was going to drop her off before he picked up the supplies I need, then get the new housekeeper from the station.'
'As you can see, I'm here. I walked. Giles will only have my trunk to pick up instead.'
'I can see that you're here, Miss. I'm not daft, nor am I the one who's blind round here ... perhaps he went to see that girl of his, Jassy Bennett.'
A clock chimed in the depths of the house and the cook got heavily to her feet. 'Reckon I'd better get on with the stew.'
Mrs Cornwell frowned at the cook. 'Can't you cook anything but stew?'
'Of course, but I don't see the point. My stew is good enough for servants. I can never understand why Mr Leighton doesn't sell this place.'
'Because the master grew up here, and he likes it here, that's why. Count yourself lucky, you'd be out of a job if he did.'
'A lot you know. I've been here since Mr Leighton was a child, and you've only worked here for a handful of years. It's not as if you're a paragon of cleanliness yourself.'
There was evidence to back up that statement, Sara thought as she followed Mrs Cornwell along the corridor. She could only suppose that Mrs Cornwell didn't care about her position now she was leaving, but perhaps she never had. 'You can sleep in my sitting room for tonight.'
At least the housekeeper's quarters were clean.
The tour of the house revealed a well-furnished and comfortable abode, but even though the rooms were not large or numerous the housekeeping left much to be desired. The dust on the furniture was as thick as a blanket.
Mrs Cornwell saw her running her finger through it. 'Hardly anyone occupies the house and the staff have got into the habit of being lazy.' She sniffed. 'I never got on with cook.'
Probably because she'd allowed Maggie to take the upper hand, Sara thought. Most of her remembered childhood had been lived in squalor. While working for the reverend she had discovered that clean and tidy was better. Not only did it look better, it smelled better, tasted better and discouraged house pests such as rats, spiders and cockroaches. Ugh! She shuddered. She would put her foot down when she took over the house. She remembered the long grass at the front. 'Who does the garden?'
'Joseph Tunney. He and the stable lad tend to the outside maintenance and clean the windows between them. They also look after the horse.'
'I noticed that the grass needs cutting.'
'Mr Leighton likes it long so he can smell the flowers. Joseph and Giles don't like anyone interfering with their job, so you need to just concern yourself with the inside of the house.' She threw open a door and frowned as dust swirled in the shaft of sunshine coming through the window. 'This is the master's room, and he uses the sitting room at the front. He likes the afternoon sun on his face. I told Fanny to make the rooms ready today. I suppose I'll have to do it myself. Mr Leighton will bring his valet, so the room next door will need cleaning too.'
'I'll give you a hand, even though I'm not supposed to start until tomorrow.'
'I suppose you're thinking we're lazy here. Fanny is a bit simple. She's a good worker if you keep on her back. Cook is all right when the master's here, but she has a mouth on her sometimes. She's too old to get a position anywhere else though. The alternative is for her to go and live with her sister and her family, and they don't get on. Giles is willing, but so is his girlfriend and she leads him astray.'
Sara was not too young to know what the woman meant. To hide her blush she turned her mind to the job at hand. Thank goodness someone had put dustsheets over the beds because at least the feather mattresses wouldn't need beating. They made the beds with clean sheets and covers, shook dust from the rugs out the windows, polished the furniture with beeswax and washed the floors.
When they'd finished Sara said, 'You won't mind if I have a word or two with the staff, will you? I intend to start in the same way as I mean to carry on.'
Mrs Cornwell had shrugged then, and smiled. 'I just hope they'll listen.'
When they'd finished cleaning they found that Fanny had returned. She was a strong-looking girl and she smiled widely when she saw Sara. 'You're pretty.'
Sara remembered Mrs Cornwell saying she was a bit simple. 'Thank you, Fanny. Where have you been?' 'To see my ma.'
'From now on you cannot visit your mother until you've finished your work, and you must ask me first, so I don't have to worry about where you are. Do you understand, Fanny?'
'Now you're back you may go and clean the stairs and the hall.'
'Is there something you need to say, Maggie?'
The cook whirled around. 'Who do you think you are marching in here giving us orders?'
'I'm the new housekeeper. If you don't like it, say so.'
Maggie's arms went to her hips and her chin thrust forward. 'I don't like it.'
'Thank you for being honest; I shall be likewise. I don't like doing the work other people are being paid to do. This kitchen is dirty, and that will attract vermin. Please clean this kitchen up and get on with your job. If you'd rather not work under me then I know somebody who would be happy to step into your shoes.'
Maggie gasped, and her voice took on a whine. 'We'll see what the master has to say about this.'
'I doubt if Mr Leighton will appreciate the fact that he's paying his staff a wage to sleep all day,' Sara said drily. She could almost see
Maggie's mind working, and wondered which way she'd jump. To her relief, eventually the woman came to the conclusion that she was betteroff doing as she was told.
Maggie shrugged. 'I was just having a nap, that's all, Miss. I'm sorry, it won't happen again, I'm sure.'
'So am I, Maggie ... neither will drinking your employer's port happen again, I hope, since I think it was that which caused the need for a nap.'
'Yes, Miss ... I mean ... no, Miss.'
Sara exchanged a glance with Mrs Cornwell, who smiled encouragingly at her. She noticed a young man at the door. About her own age, he was muscular, had hair the colour of ripe wheat, pale-blue eyes and a ready smile. 'You must be Giles.'
'Aye, I am, that.'
'I'm Miss Finn, the new housekeeper. Did you pick my trunk up from the railway station? The stationmaster was keeping it safe in his office.'
'He wasn't there. I'll pick it up tomorrow when I take Mrs Cornwell to catch the train.'
'Why weren't you there to meet me, Giles? I was told to expect someone.'
He flushed. 'Sorry, Miss Finn, I had something else to do first, and when I got there you'd left.'
'Where's Joseph Tunney?'
'It's his day off, Miss.'
She nodded. 'I see.' And she saw only too well because it accounted for the stationmaster's remark about the mice playing when the cat was away. She'd already formed the impression that most of this household took advantage of the absence of the owner, and the house lacked an efficient manager. That would come to an end. 'Try not to let it happen again, Giles, else I'll have to talk to Mr Tunney about it. You can all go about your business now.'
After dinner, and she had to admit that the lamb stew was excellent, Mrs Cornwell showed her how to do the menus for the week, then they went through the stores list and the linen inventory. 'The house provides skirts, blouses and aprons. Two outfits a year apiece. They're in the linen cupboard. No doubt you can find something to fit, though the hems might need taking up. If you pin them up, Fanny will do them. I've taught her to sew, and she enjoys it and is good at it.'
'That's nice to know. I can sew, but it's something I dislike doing.'
'I've ordered the stores a month ahead, so it will give you time to get used to what is where. There's a market in Taunton, and Joseph keeps a vegetable garden. Giles fetches fresh milk from the farm every morning. There's no mistress in the house. Finch Leighton is a widower and he relies very much on the housekeeper to keep everything up to date.'
'What's Mr Leighton like?'
'Easy-going, but he gets restless and bored easily. Don't move any of the furniture around. He likes everything to be in its proper place.'
After that there was very little to be said. In the dying light the air took on a misty purple hue and was filled with insects and perfume. They walked around the garden together, visiting the stable with its one horse, named Curruthers. It snickered softly at them.
Excerpted from Straw in the Wind by Janet Woods. Copyright © 2010 Janet Woods. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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