The temperature inside the cottage was colder than without when Mary returned; in her absence no-one had thought to stoke the fire. Susan and Grace sat either end of the rickety table winding silk onto spools while the baby mithered in his makeshift cot.
“He’s damp, poor little thing. Here you are Susan, you change him, you need to learn how to do it, it shouldn’t have to be me who does it every time.”
She poked the embers in the fire place sending sparks shimmering , released, they dance briefly before fluttering down into the ash and dying. Have stirred the fire into some sort of activity she blew life into it with the bellows and quickly tossed a handful of kindling into the embryo flames. Satisfied that the fire had taken hold she rather more carefully arranged three logs and sat back on her heels. Having done that she set the kettle upon the trivet, by which time Susan had changed the baby. Mary took him from her sister’s arms and stroked his downy. “ I’ll mix you some oatmeal,” she reassured him. “Don’t you fret, Billy, when I get some work I’ll make sure you get much milk as you need.”
At midday her father returned and flung a handful of coins onto the table.
“That’s all there is,” he announced. “ Six and threepence and the harvest is all in. I shan’t be needed again until ploughing begins in the spring.”
“Won’t the parish help out?” asked Mary.
“We’ll get Ma’s loom out and make a few ribbons. I know we didn’t sell many yesterday but there is bound to be a call for them soon. I’m getting quite good at weaving the borders that London folk are asking for now.” This was Susan speaking.
Joe Fennic sank onto a chair and scraped it across the floor towards the tble where he sat for a moment head in hands. Mary took Billy from Susan’s arms and began to spoon the newly mixed oat pap into his mouth. He protested at first, instinctively turning his head towards her in search of milk until hunger persuaded him to accept the watery gruel. Mary continued to spoon the food into his birdlike mouth in silence. Susan and Grace sat before the fire watching their father warily. Suddenly he rose, banging his fists on the table.
I ain’t no use to you as a father. I can’t put bread on the table. You will be better off without me.”
“Pa, what do you mean?” Granted, he was not the most agreeable of fathers but he was their Pa. He couldn’t leave them, surely.
“The parish will make up the cost of bread this week, but what about next week and the week after? The overseers will find a reason to cease payment but four children alone, they’ll be duty bound to care for. Meanwhile I’ll find work in another parish. A landlord is more likely to take a on labour outside his area since. A stranger will have no claims on the system no matter how low a wage he receives. I’ll maybe pick up work where they’ve still got potatoes and beet to harvest.”
He gathered up the coins and handed them to Mary. “Take this and make it last,” he told her. “Go to the vicar and apply for relief. With bread the price it is you should be given a couple of shillings more.”
“The rent’s due at month’s end.”
“Sir Roger a reasonable landlord He won’t evict you because of one month’s arrears if there is a good explanation and I’ll be back with a second month. I may as well be going, no sense hanging around now my mind is made up.”
He broke a hunk of bread off the loaf and put it in his pocket. “Give me the threepence,” he said to Mary. “A man can’t be on the road with no money at all to his name.” She handed over the three pennies. He pocketed them and left his daughters and baby son without a backwards glance.
Mary practised what she would say as she walked along the deep-sided lane towards the village where lay The Griffin. “I’m hard working,” she Sid to the birds in the hedgerow, “I’ve been keeping house for Pa these last three months, I can cook, sew and launder and I can read and write and do ‘rithmetic. “
She hoped that she might see Jack one last time before departed but the yard was empty; the only evidence of the recruitment effort were a few tattered handbills floating in the wind. Mary picked one up and smoothed it out. The letters G R in Gothic headed the sheet, and below it,
Wanted for his majesty’s twenty fourth Warwickshire Regiment
16 guineas bounty for unlimited service, 11 guineas for limited service.
Mary wasn’t sure what was meant by bounty, but it sounded like riches beyond her wildest dreams. It was impossible to imagine eleven guineas, let alone sixteen. She folded the handbill neatly and pushed it into her pinafore pocket. It might one day be useful to know which regiment Jack had joined.
Across the stable yard the black beamed Griffin Inn appeared lifeless. Not even a wisp of smoke from the four tall chimneys protruding from the thatch. Mary crossed the yard and banged on the studded door.
“We aren’t open yet. Where’s your patience?” came the voice from within.
“I ain’t here for a drink. I heard that you are hiring.”
The door opened a crack.
“Éxcuse me, are you the mistress?” Mary asked as politely as she knew.
“My name is Mary Fennic. I’m looking for work.”
The door opened wider and Elizabeth Pink studied the girl who stood before her.
“Are you Joe Fennic’s girl?”
“I was sorry to hear about your Ma. Step inside and let me have a look at you. How old are you?” Elizabeth Pink asked.
“I’ve not worked for anyone before. I’ve been keeping house for my Pa and looking after my baby brother since my Ma passed away. Before that I helped my Ma with her weaving and before that I was a scholar.”
“Alright, that’s far back enough. I don’t need your life history. Who will be looking after your Pa if you come to work here?”
“My sister.” She couldn’t bring herself to say that he’d deserted them.
“Because I can’t have you disappearing at a moment’s notice because you are needed at home.”
“That won’t happen Ma’am I promise, ” Mary said earnestly.
“ I need a general maid. Someone to scrub floors and polich the taps in the bar. Can you launder? General washing, bed linen? Mr Pink is very particular about his shirts, as I am about my aprons. We like them to be bleached,scrubbed, starched and ironed. Think you are up that?”
“Of course Ma’am.”
“Two and ninepence a week with a midday dinner provided. Will that suit?”
“”It will. Thankyou Ma’am, you won’t regret it I promise you.”
“You make sure I don’t. Otherwise you’ll be out on your ear without a reference. Be here tomorrow morning seven o’clock sharp.”
Mary ran home lighter of heart. With Pa gone and her own dinner provided by Mrs Pink Susan would only have to find food for herself and Grace. Pa’s six shilliongs would last a while and with her own wages she could make sure that Billy got all the milk he needed to grow strong.
The Griffin was a long, low ceilinged Inn built century of so earlier, consisting of a flagged bar and tap room downstairs, a three bedrooms above, two of which were let to travellers, and a dormitory below the thatch where slept sundry others – poor travellers who could not afford the luxury of a room and therefore paid sixpence to for a straw pallet in the loft together with any live-in servants there might be.
Mary arrived shortly before seven, a thin shawl drawn tightly around her shoulders as insulation against the first frost of the year. She pushed open the door of the inn. Smoke hung in the air still, together with the smell of stale beer. The soles of her clogs were gripped by the sticky residue on the floor and threatened to desert her feet at every step.
“Mrs Pink,” she called, her voice echoing in the empty space. Mrs Pink, sans her customary cap and with her grey hair hanging down in a thick plait, appeared at the foot of the stairs which emerged one side of the bar.
“Oh, it’s you, the new girl,” she said without much enthusiasm. She yawned widely. “Do excuse me, we were particularly late closing last night. Come her, let’s have another look at you.”
She scrutinised Mary carefully. “Mmm, you’re small. Come with me.” She took Mary into a kitchen at the back of the bar and handed her a sacking apron. “Put this on. You’ll need it for the dirty work.”
A cast iron range upon which two kettles boiled stood in the kitchen. Mrs Pink handed her a bundle of cloths and a basin of soapflakes. All the tables need a good wash down, the floor sweeping and washing with hot soapy water, the bar counter has to be cleaned and the taps polished. Off you go, I’ll be back to inspect in and hour.”
Mary set to work. The table tops were sticky with beer. Mary purloined a knife from the side board with which to dislodge from the crevices crumbs from many a meal and the ash spilled carelessly from clay pipes. She washed away greasy, beery residue and buffed the table top unti it almost gleamed.
“Very nice,” remarked Mrs Pink upon her return, “but you’ve three more to do remember and the floor to wash.”
Mary resumed her work. At ten thirty the first stage pulled into the in yard; the passengers piled into the bar and demanded porter and pies to sustain them on the remainder of their journey to Derby. In the yard all was a flurry of activity as the horses were freed from the wagon and rubbed vigorously with straw to remove the sweat from their flanks; afterwards they were lad to the trough to drink. Upon hearing the bugle sound inn emptied of customers. Silence descended upon the inn. Mary began to clear away the dirty plates and empty tankards.
At five in the afternoon which the occupants of The Griffin gathered around one of the tables; Mr and Mrs Pink, Ned the barman, Rob the potboy, Maggie the housemaid and Peg-Leg Pete who despite his wooden stump managed to carry out a variety of odd jobs. Also at the table were three gentleman and a lady travelling to Manchester by stage coach. A cauldron of stew hung above the fire, from which each was able to ladle as much as they wished, three loaves, butter and a large cheese were on the table. It had been a long while since Mary had eaten as much as she desired.
The brick built wash house stood in one corner of the inn yard.
“Here’s the copper,” Mrs Pink said, pointing to the tarnished urn set atop a brick fireplace. Have you used on before?”
“You must fill it with water from the well. Mean while Mr Pink will light the fire beneath the copper. When the water is hot open the tap at the bottom of the copper and fill the wash-tub. There is a bar of soap on the shelf and paring knife. Use the soap sparingly and give all the washing a good dollying. You can give everything a final rinse in the copper, and boil my aprons and Mr. Pink’s white shirts in the copper too. The washing line is at the back of the stables.”
She laughed upon seeing Mary’s face. “Don’t worry girl. You won’t be alone. I’ll be helping you.
At the end of the day Mary’s hands were red from the carbolic and arms ache as they never had done before from relentlessly pounding the dolly. The temperature inside cramped wash house rose as the day wore on and Mary was grateful for the frequent ventures outside to peg out the wet clothes. Before the afternoon light faded the clothes were brought into the washroom and any item still damp hung over the wooded clothes horse.
“Well done girl, you’ve worked hard,” Mrs Pink said finally. “Come into the bar now and have refreshment.”
Mary followed her new employer into the tap room.
“Ned, give the girl a small beer,” and Mary was presented with pewter tankard of weak ale.
From time to time a newspaper from London was left by a passing guest; Mr Pink was won’t to read aloud snippets of information and gossip to his household as they were gathered around the table.
“Bloody Frenchmen,” her declared with indignation one dinner time. “ listen to this; the crew of a French navy frigate has boarded and captured the Windham and the Ceylon – the ships had left The Cape and were bound for Madras. They carried each thirty guns and had four hundred soldiers on board belonging to the twentieth fourth regiment of foot – why that’s the regiment of the Warwickshire lads! A general Officer, a Colonel and the colours were on board which accounts for their obstinate resistance.
“Mary, you’re looking quite pale, what’s the matter with you girl?” asked Mrs Pink.
“Nothing Ma’am. I was just thinking of the Warwickshire Lads in the hands of the frenchies. Does it say where they are being held, Mr Pink?”
He scanned the broadsheet. “Mauritius in the Indian Ocean it seems. Oh dear, it seems that the Prince has been taken poorly again.”
Mary thought not of the prince but of Jack Flowers, who may right at the moment be a prisoner of the French.