EMMA was exhausted. Up at five to attend to the fires, run off her feet all day, rarely in bed before midnight. Life at Chester had been luxurious by comparison. Curiously, in some ways she felt the change was justified.
Blood will out!
Granfer Trigg’s words preyed on her mind. Now that she had fully digested it, the circumstances of her birth rankled. She wasn’t who she had thought she was. She was the product of a union between two people unblessed by the vows of matrimony.
Never mind that her mama had wed the person Emma had called “Papa”, she was still that despised element of society. Emptying slops and scouring saucepans befitted a baseborn person like her.
One morning she was helping her mistress with the bread when the landlord entered the kitchen.
“Ill news,” he said heavily. “A girl’s been dragged from the river. Seems she were in the family way. No wedding band.”
Aggie’s hands stilled over the dough she was pounding.
A choked sound of dismay escaped Emma’s throat, quickly checked. On the whole she got on well with her employers. It wasn’t her place to have opinions and she didn’t want to jeopardise her position here.
“Let it be a lesson to others,” Aggie said.
They both went back to working the dough, but Emma had not missed the sorrow in her mistress’s face. Pounding steadily, Emma let her mind wander.
Her acceptable terms with the Cotterill couple did not extend to the son Roland, whom Emma found too forward by far. She tried not to dwell on the poor dead girl fished out of the river.
As always, her thoughts turned to home. What was happening there? She went on to consider the puzzling question of the man who had sired her.
Who had he been? Some wayward sailor boy, more in love with life on the high seas than the girl he had left behind?
What she was coming to realise was that everyone made mistakes. Everyone had their dark side. Her friend, Alice, had proved that.
* * * *
The wind blew keenly across the Dee meadows. Alice, walking along beside Alfie, gave a shiver.
He took her arm.
In fact the shiver was due more to the conversation than any vagaries of the weather. As always the talk had turned to Emma, and Alice’s conscience stabbed.
Where was Emma? Had she found some safe haven? Or had she met her end?
Another shiver took her. Alfie was all concern.
“You are chilled. Shall we turn back?”
“No, it’s nothing,” she said absently. “I was thinking about Emma. If only I hadn’t –”
She realised her mistake and broke off, but Alfie was quick.
“If only you hadn’t what?” He frowned. “Alice, what did you mean? If your part in this sorry business has been misleading in any respect, perhaps you’d better say. Did Emma actually admit to you that she and Brookfield were lovers?”
“Well, not exactly. She – oh, Alfie, forgive me. What a foolish creature I am.” Alice fluttered her eyelashes in an attempt to distract him.
For once, Alfie was not to be wooed.
“Continue,” he told her softly, but with an undercurrent that alarmed her.
“I saw them together!” she burst out pettishly. “And, and . . .”
“And you were jealous.” Alfie finished for her. “I can guess the rest. Come.”
He took her arm and began marching her back along the river path.
“Alfie, stop! Where are we going?”
“Home,” he said.
He guided her up the steps to the bridge and along Bridge Street, thence ascending the steep steps on to the Rows.
Outside the front door of the vintner’s, he stopped.
“Farewell, Alice.” The eyes that met hers were hard and accusing. Then he was gone, leaving her biting her lip in vexation at not guarding her words.
He’d be back, Alice told herself. He’d miss her. As for Emma, she was a survivor. She’d be all right. Of course she would.