December 1912 (Here Lies a Soldier part 15)

By Meg Sorick. Find other parts of the story and a family tree here.

December 26, 1912

The morning after Christmas was always a little glum. Especially this year with father so ill. There’d been no money for presents and our only treat was the honey cake Mama had made for dessert. Of late, we girls had had to find ways to contribute and for me that meant work at the manor house on the hill.

The air was cold, I could see my breath. The warmth from the stove hadn’t made it to the upper room I shared with my two sisters. I quickly washed my face and hands in the icy water from the basin and pulled on my clothes. I’d brush my hair downstairs by the stove and talk to Papa while I braided it. We’d moved a cot next to the stove so that he could keep warm over night.

Mama had gone out already, it appeared. She cooked for the vicar in the village and would have to get his breakfast for him.

“Papa,” I said softly. I laid a hand on his arm. He came awake coughing so I helped him to a sitting position and pounded his back like the doctor had instructed. When the spams stopped, he signaled for a glass of water. I fetched it for him and held it to his lips.

“Thank you, my dear,” he rasped. “How’s my girl?”

I smiled. “I’m good, Papa. How are you feeling?”

“Right as rain, Love. Right as rain. I’ll be on my feet again before two shakes of a lamb’s tail,” he said with a reassuring smile. “Now tell me… How many pages did you read last night?”

Papa was adamant that we girls continue learning. He had hoped that we would be able to train to become teachers or nurses. Of course, that supposed we wouldn’t find husbands. And I always teased him that he thought the three of us were going to be ‘left on the shelf.’

Conversation with my father was always easy. Most men would rue the lack of a son to carry on the family name. Not so my Da. He loved his three daughters more than the best of the sons he could’ve sired. My younger sisters hadn’t yet lived up to his expectations, but they were still young. Clara was just 14 -three years younger than me, and Grace another year younger than her. They would, in time, flourish under Papa’s guidance. Which was why he just had to get better. He just had to…

I sat on a stool beside his cot and brushed out my hair while I told him all about the book I was reading. I plaited the long dark tresses into a single thick braid and then wound that into a bun. There was just enough time to fix tea and a slice of toast for the both of us before I bundled into my coat and set out for Prentice House, the manor on the hill.

The day dawned grey and cold, with just a hint of snow in the air. At least I was assured of abundant warmth in the Prentice home. The family had a houseful of guests for the holidays. Normally, I worked with the cleaning staff, but with the extra mouths to feed, I’d been reassigned to help in the kitchen.

When I entered through the servants’ door on the ground floor, the kitchen was already bustling with activity. Simmering pots of porridge, fresh loaves from the oven, pans of eggs, sausages and bacon were keeping warm until the guests assembled for breakfast. It would be up to Nancy and me to wash and scrub all those pots and pans as they were emptied onto platters to be taken up to the dining room.

I hung my coat and scarf on the peg, tied my apron around me and got to work. The butlers and maids scurried about delivering and returning dishes for refill. My hands were raw from scrubbing and scouring by the time the last pan was clean. We had a precious hour to rest before we’d need to start on the pans that were already in use for the next meal. Nancy and I helped ourselves to a cup of tea and sat side by side at the servants’ table in the dining area next to the kitchen.

“What’d you do for Christmas, then?” she asked.

I looked into my cup, embarrassed. “My ma made us a stew. We had a honey cake for dessert. That’s it.” I shrugged. “How about you?”

“Made a goose, my ma did.”

“Shut up, Nancy. You’re lying,” I snapped.

“It’s true,” she boasted.

I ignored her and sipped my tea.

We sat in uncomfortable silence till the tea was gone and our break was over. I stood, pushing my chair back and taking my cup to the sink to wash. Nancy was always putting on airs. A goose, indeed. Likely as my Da being elected Prime Minister.

Mrs. Cooper was herding the rest of the girls into position when the head butler appeared in a panic. “Quickly!” he gestured, as he gasped for breath. “It’s a disaster! The table… it’s collapsed… food everywhere… hurry!”

Every free hand was put to work cleaning up the mess as the Prentice family and their guests looked on. Mr. And Mrs. Prentice appeared embarrassed and horrified, while their two haughty daughters looked like they’d just sucked lemons expecting them to be sugar cubes. Only young Hugh Prentice gazed upon the scene with a twinkle in his eye and a smile threatening on his lips. When he caught me looking at him, he set the smile free and winked. I averted my eyes, blushing, but couldn’t keep my own smile from turning up the corners of my mouth. I busied myself with the cleanup until every scrap and spill was dealt with. And as I stood, wiping my hands on my apron, I looked up to find the blue eyes of Hugh Prentice still staring at me.

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