WHAT shall we play?” Mary asked, putting her dolls down.
“We could use your tea set and make afternoon tea for your dolls. Or I could read you a story. What would you prefer?”
“Can we do both?”
“You can choose what we do today.”
“Will there be no lessons at all?” She squeezed her hands together hopefully.
“No lessons. Instead you must promise to get well. Peggy will bring you some food soon and I want you to eat it all up. Will you do that for me?”
She nodded, then slyly looked to her father. He was engrossed in a set of newspapers which had arrived.
“Will Papa have to eat all his food, too?”
He moved the papers down so that he could see her. His brow quirked in a mock frown.
“What’s this? What am I to be forced to do?”
Mary looked gleeful.
“You have to do what Amelia says, all day. Just like me.”
“Indeed?” Charles’s gaze flickered to my face and he looked amused. “And what will you have me do, Amelia?”
So I was no longer Miss Thorne. He obviously felt he knew me well enough to use my given name. Unless it was because of the informality of the nursery environment.
“I will have you take care of yourself,” I said, pretending to be severe, to hear Mary’s delighted giggles. “I will insist that every scrap of good food that is sent up is eaten. When you are better, I will insist on long, brisk country walks to build you up.”
He played along as Mary observed us both happily.
“Long country walks? Well, if I must, then of course I shall do so. On one condition.”
“And what condition would that be?” I asked, drawn into the silly game too far.
“That you should accompany me on these long outings.”
Oh, what enjoyment I should have if such a thing were possible. I felt a thrill surge through me − until I dampened it down. We were joking. That was all.
Except that, when I dared raise my head, he was waiting for an answer.
“I… I should like that very much,” I said plainly.
Mary sighed loudly, trying to pull her father’s attention back to her.
“I want my tea set now,” she told me. “You can be the grandmother and I will be the lovely lady of the house. My dollies will be our honoured guests.”
And so the day progressed. A beautiful posy of flowers arrived from Sarah and Charlotte with their very best wishes.
I was glad they’d stayed away. The flowers were cheering and took centre stage in the nursery. Their sweet scent wafted in the air.
Charles took his leave of us at midday. He had work to do and felt fit enough to do it. Mary and I spent the afternoon reading and drawing until Peggy brought a tray of dinner for us both.
“She’s in a right old mood,” she grumbled, placing the tray on the table next the bed.
I didn’t need to ask who she meant.
“Shouting at me and Edna and Lil. Nothing we do is right. Lil’s down there chopping carrots with Mrs Bell snapping at her to go faster. Edna got into big trouble because the soup burned over.
“Then she tells me she’s told Mrs Dane I can’t have me day off on Sunday. I’m needed apparently ’cause she’s ’aving a day boiling up puddings. What am I going to tell me mam?”
“She sounds worse than usual.”
“Yes, she is. I don’t know why. She ought to be pleased the Williamses aren’t arriving after all. She’s only feeding her Ladyship and himself.” Peggy gave a great sigh and shrugged her shoulders. “Any road, here’s some soup, warmed bread and pork chops. Get that down you, Miss Mary, and it’ll make your teeth shine.”
Mary laughed before it ended in a giant cough.
She and I tucked into our meal with relish. Soon enough it was time for Mary to sleep and for me to slip away to my rooms.
Once in my sitting-room, I couldn’t settle. One of the maids had made up a fire. I sat beside it and tried to concentrate on my novel but the words danced in front of me.
With exasperation, I flung it down and went and lay on the bed. I must have dozed for I woke with a start. Disorientated, I struggled up. It was pitch black outside.
I rubbed my face. I would go downstairs and fetch some hot chocolate. There was no-one about as I headed down to the kitchen. It was clearly late. I began to think I’d have a wasted journey. Surely there would be no hot chocolate at this hour − but there was a light in the kitchen.
Mrs Bell jumped when I saw her.
“Oh, what do you want? I’m just… just locking up before I go to bed. Why are you wandering about so late?”
“Doesn’t Peggy usually lock up?” I said.
She scratched her head as if pondering my words. I noticed her bitten-down nails. Her mouth was pursed and she was twitchy.
“Peggy…” she echoed. “Well, I gave her the night off, didn’t I? Told her I’d lock up tonight.”
“She didn’t mention she had a night off when I saw her earlier. Only that she wasn’t getting her day off on Sunday.”
I wanted Mrs Bell to know how unfair I thought she was being on Peggy.
“That’s why I gave her tonight off.” There was a triumphant expression on her face, as if she’d tricked me. “Why are you down here?”
“I was hoping for some hot chocolate.”
“There isn’t any. Tell you what, if you go upstairs, I’ll bring you a pot on my way up.”
“Yes, yes. Only you need to go up. I’ll be ten minutes.”
She waved me away with fluttering hands.