City Of Discoveries — Episode 08

Hetty Wilson went into the breakfast parlour of her boarding-house in Aberdeen Road. The maid, Ina, had yet again set the knives and forks the wrong way round.

She made haste to sort them out, having no wish for her two new lodgers, both gentlemen, to find anything amiss.

She heard footsteps on the stairs.

“Good morning, Miss Wilson. I hope I’m not up and about too early,” John Crombie said. “I’m used to keeping early hours. I was awake and I heard a noise.”

“Good morning, Mr Crombie. That will have been the gathering. As the workers get closer to the mills, they funnel into smaller and smaller spaces and their voices and footsteps rise to a crescendo before everyone is swallowed by the factory doors. Did you look out?”

“I did. I couldn’t see a crowd but I did see one worker hurrying along, and then I saw Miss Smith, striding out.” Crombie laughed. “She had a businesslike air even for that early hour.”

“Carrie goes down to her family’s jute mill some days. She has a particular concern for the women and the bairns working there, and likes to arrive unannounced.”

In truth, Carrie’s expeditions often left Hetty anxious until she returned.

“She’ll come back for breakfast.”

So it proved. Just as Thomas Webster, the other lodger, descended the house stairs, Carrie rose from the basement ones.

“Goodness, Miss Smith, you startled me!” Thomas stepped back to allow her to enter the breakfast parlour ahead of him.

“Good morning, Mr Webster. It’s easier for everyone if I come in through the kitchen. I can wash my hands and leave my outdoor things drying.”

Hetty heard this exchange with a sinking feeling. Would her new lodgers find them a ramshackle household?

“Carrie,” Hetty said, “Were you at Sooth’s?”

“I was. Walter Lochead says several boys are missing their evening classes. I thought I’d ask about it.”

She sat down and automatically reached to swap the knife and fork, then saw they were correctly placed.

“Ina must be alert this morning.”

“I inspected the table,” Hetty said mildly.

Thomas smiled.

“You said last night that you inherited the house, Hetty. Did the maids come with it?”

“Yes. They’d both been with my parents for years. But Cook and Ina are finding the demands of this big house too much for them, I think.” She sighed.

It would be a wrench to lay them off.

“Ina, at least, is not going to see seventy again.”

“You deal well with your servants, Hetty,” Carrie said. “You won’t have any trouble replacing them because you’re known to be a good employer.”

“Even so, I find going to the Servants’ Registry a daunting thought. The married couple who run it were once housekeeper and butler to a royal duke.”

Hetty had met these grand people last week when she called in to enquire about hiring a new kitchen helper in advance of the male guests arriving.

The hauteur with which they explained their rates and the conditions they sought for their workers was a marvel.

“Still, if I am to make a real business out of the house, then I must seek out properly trained people.”

“I think that admirable. Might I accompany you to the Registry to offer a little moral support?” Thomas asked.

“Why, thank you.”

Hetty was relieved. It would be very soothing to have Thomas’s support.

“Do you have indoor servants in Newfoundland, Mr Crombie?” Carrie asked.

Hetty glanced at the younger man. Now Carrie brought it up, she was interested. He couldn’t live on a whaler all year round.

“Yes, although there are very, very few big houses. In St John’s, where I am based, things are much less structured than your wonderful city plan here,” Crombie said.

“Isn’t St John’s an old city?” Carrie mused.

Hetty suspected Carrie had been looking Newfoundland up in the subscription library. It would explain her absence from the house for most of yesterday afternoon.

“The oldest we have.” Crombie smiled. “That only takes it back to the 1600s, so you probably regard it as a juvenile upstart.”

“Mr Crombie! I hope I haven’t given any such impression. It must be fascinating to live in such a remote area,” Carrie said. “My cousin, Elspeth, lives in Sydney, Australia.”

Hetty watched her tuck a stray lock of hair back into her rather untidy bun.

“I suppose my red hair would mean I should find Australian weather rather trying.”

“There are many Scots in North America, Miss Smith, and the clear light can be trying there, too.” He paused. “Tell me, do you often visit the works so early?”

“No,” Carrie said. “Just when I think it would be useful to surprise the overseer. My late papa used to say he wanted to see what was actually going on, not what the people with authority wanted him to see.

“Because Walter Lochead, our teacher, is so concerned about the lads missing out, I thought it was a good time.”

“Carrie keeps a close eye on the welfare of Sooth’s workforce even though the firm is managed by her uncle,” Hetty explained. “She has resolved several issues that still fester in other mills as a result.”

“There was one issue this morning,” Carrie said. “When I was in Sooth’s I heard that fool, Souter, listening to a tale about the young woman from Phemie Wightman’s land I’ve mentioned to you, Hetty. Jennet Marshall?”

Alan Spink

Alan is a member of the “Friend” Fiction Team. He enjoys working closely with writers and being part of the creative process, which sees storytelling ideas come to fruition. A keen reader, he also writes fiction and enjoys watching football and movies in his spare time. His one tip to new writers is “write from your imagination”.