A MONTH later, Alfie still had not come. Hamilton, too, had seemingly deserted her. Alice was devastated. She drooped around the house, snapped at her mother and rejected all attempt to cheer. Even her little dog brought her no comfort.
In the end her father intervened.
“You’re looking peaky, poppet. It’s a fine day for a drive and I have out-of-town clients to see. Would you come with me? I’d be glad of your company.”
How could she refuse? Bowling along in the carriage, the brisk wintry air whipping some colour into her cheeks, Alice’s spirits rose. She knew she looked her best in her new winter travelling outfit of kingfisher woollen braided with black.
“Where are we bound?” she asked her father.
“Tarporley,” he replied. “I need to call at the manor house.”
They were passing the Swan Inn and Alice was thinking what an attractive façade it had, when a figure in the courtyard gained her attention.
The girl was dressed in the working garb of a common maidservant but the lithe shape and wayward honey-coloured curls escaping from beneath the calico cap were unmistakable.
It was Emma!
* * * *
Emma applied the lighted taper to the kindling of sticks and sank back on her heels, willing the flames to lick and take hold in the massive stone grate of the hostelry foyer. Of all the fires she had to attend to as the first, and by no means her favourite, task of the day, this one was the most temperamental.
“Burn, can’t you?” she muttered, flinching as a sappy twig spluttered and spat back as if in spite. Grimacing, she brushed a grimy hand across her forehead, leaving a smudge.
“Emmie? Where is that girl? Emmie!” Aggie Cotterill’s shrill voice carried from the kitchen and Emma looked up.
“I’m coming, mistress.”
She gathered together the empty coal hod and box of household tools and hurried along the passageway and into the big kitchen.
Aggie stood at the range, wielding a large black iron frying-pan in which rashers of fat bacon sizzled temptingly.
The air was full of the smell of cooking and smuts from the fire. This last was an ominous sign of the wind having changed direction in the night, heralding snow, if Bertram Cotterill’s gloomy forecast was to be believed.
“There you are!” Aggie said. “It’s gone seven. The guests will be shouting for their breakfasts and they’ll not linger. The coachman will want to make tracks before the weather worsens.”
Deftly she transferred the bacon on to a huge platter and indicated a stack of plates put to warm on a shelf above the hob.
“You can take this lot through to the dining-hall for me. Don’t forget the bread. Look sharp, now.”
“Yes’m,” Emma said.
Her mistress’s manner brooked no argument and, pausing only to wash her chapped and smarting hands at the stone sink, Emma did as she was asked.
On the whole she found the travellers who stayed at the inn a genial bunch. She was developing a rapport with them that made her popular and won her the approval of her employers.
“Ah, here she is wi’ the victuals!”
At the head of the long scrubbed table, the coachman rubbed his big red hands together with relish. A blunt-spoken man with a wind-buffed face and enormous side-whiskers, he gave Emma a smile.
“Got any pickles, missie? There’s nowt like a pickle or two to keep the cold out on a journey.”
Emma, depositing the laden tray down on the table, sent the man a nod.
“I’ll fetch some right away. There’s ale in the jug on the side table. If any of the ladies would like tea, I’ll tell the mistress. Tea’s twopence extra, I’m afraid.”
This last piece of information effectively stilled the eager looks from some of the female travellers, who resigned themselves to quenching the considerable thirst provoked by the salt bacon with the small ale provided.
Hurrying back along the passageway on her errand, Emma came across the son of the house coming in from the yard.
“Roland, we need the coal hods filled for the foyer and the dining-hall,” she told him. “And while you’re about it you might replenish the kindling baskets. There was barely enough to start the fires this morning.”
“I’d give you a hand with the fires – for a small favour, like.”
A smirk lit Roland’s face. He was an enormous, swaggering fellow with knowing, boiled blue eyes and a bushy red beard and hair.
His very presence was intimidating but Emma stood her ground.
“You’ll get no favours from this quarter. Just keep your hands off me. I’m no Felicity, mind me.”
The smirk fled.
“I dunna know what you mean,” Roland said stiffly.
“Oh, I think you do. And while we’re on the subject, you can forget any designs you might have towards the new girl when she comes. I shall be making it clear to her what goes on here to unsuspecting female staff.”