'You’d best get a move on, girl, if you’re to get to the big house before dark.’ ‘But father,’ the girl objected, ‘do I really have to go? I would much rather stay here with you and the others.’
The man reached over to the rough brick fireplace and threw a small log of wood onto the dying embers in the grate. Then he turned back to his daughter.
‘I’ve told you time and time again, child, since your mother died I’m finding it near impossible to feed and clothe the four of you.’
The thought of her mother brought a lump to the girl’s throat and she sniffed.
‘Lucky for us, when your mother was alive she had a good job up at the Old Hall and the master let her bring home leftovers from the table to feed us. With what I earned from the weaving shed we could just about manage but now…’ He ended with a sigh.
Elizabeth Appleton knew it was no use arguing with her father when his mind was made up, so she spat on her hands and rubbed them together before lifting the hem of her faded, brown dress and wiping her face on the edge of her white calico under skirt. She smoothed her dark, wavy hair and slipped her best Sunday apron over her head, fastening it firmly around her waist. She looked down at her worn old boots and polished each toecap on the back of her legs. The soles were almost worn through so she hoped it wouldn’t rain during her journey.
She realised her father was speaking again.
‘You should count yourself lucky, our Elizabeth, that Reverend Walsh recommended you for a position at the Hall. Lots of girls in the village would be green with envy.’
Elizabeth was immediately full of remorse.
‘Please don’t think I’m not grateful, father, but I’m really going to miss you and Nat and the girls. Do you think the missus will give me a day off to come home and see you all?’
‘The arrangement is that you’ll work every day for a month, all found, then if you’ve worked hard you’ll get the next Sunday off so that you can come home for two hours. After that you’ll get one Sunday in four off, but of course they’ll give you time off every Sunday for church.’
‘What about wages?’ Elizabeth asked.
‘Reverend Walsh said they would pay you 6d. per week, so I want you to save it up and give me half towards food for your brother and sisters.’
That seems fair, thought the girl, imagining how much food they could buy with 1/-d a month. That was, so long as her father didn’t take any of it to the alehouse!
Ah well! she thought, reaching for her moth-eaten cape hanging on its hook behind the front door.
As she wrapped it snugly round her, Elizabeth took a last glance round the room which had served as both living room and bedroom since she had been born twelve years before, and which she’d shared with ten-year-old Nat and their six-year-old twin sisters, Maisie and Martha.
It was a small, square room, opening straight off the village street, with a large brick fireplace at one end. The flagged floor was kept clean and dust-free – Elizabeth had always made sure of that, taking over the task of sweeping it when her mother died. A small window on each side let in what was left of the dying sunlight and beneath one of the windows was a raised stone slab on which was an ancient metal bowl. This was filled with water from the communal pump outside, which served the row of cottages built by the local mill owner for his workers at the silk-spinning mill on the edge of the village. The bowl was used to wash their metal plates, cups and spoons as well as for personal hygiene.
The log of wood her father had put on the fire crackled and sparked on the hearth, in front of which were placed two long wooden benches and a rickety ladder-backed chair where her father sat every night after supper to smoke a pipeful of foul-smelling tobacco.
At the opposite end of the room to the fireplace, in each corner, were a couple of straw-filled mattresses covered in moth-eaten grey blankets, one for her father and brother and one for her and her twin sisters. Elizabeth smiled remembering the day her mother had brought home a pair of thread-bare cotton sheets given to her by the missus she worked for. After supper that evening Elizabeth had helped her mother to cut each sheet in half and sew them back together, by candlelight, with the unworn edges in the middle. Now she touched her face, remembering the soft feel of the sheet in contrast to the itchy blanket that normally covered them in bed.
Outside, across the cobblestones opposite the row of mill cottages was a small brick structure where the communal earth ‘privy’ served at least ten adults and as many children. Elizabeth shuddered as she thought of the cold winter mornings when she’d queued outside it so as not to lose her place in the line.
‘Time to go, girl,’ her father’s voice broke her reminiscences. ‘I’ll walk up to the big house with you.’
Elizabeth hugged her brother and kissed each of the girls, who were both in tears.
‘Don’t cry, Maisie, Martha,’ she begged. ‘I’ll see you in four weeks. It will soon pass.’
Four weeks! She thought, with dread.
‘Come on,’ her father urged, already standing in the open doorway.
Wiping away her tears, Elizabeth picked up a small bundle from the table in the middle of the room. It contained her most precious possessions – a small tin box with a lock of her mother’s hair inside, an old tortoishell comb she’d bought at the Village Fete last year for 1d – and, of course, her Sunday best calico drawers, lovingly trimmed with lace by her mother.
She joined her father and together they made their way along the dusty cobbled way out of the village. They crossed a little bridge over the river and turned left at the crossroads onto the main road towards Mottram St. Andrew.