Chapter One: Here Lies a Soldier
Meredith stared at the headstone. She always stopped at this one on the way to her great-grandfather’s grave. It read: Here Lies a British Soldier of the Great War, Known Unto God. She pulled a single stem from the bouquet she carried, and laid it on the grass beneath the marker.
The breeze sent a chill up her spine. It was threatening to rain. The channel crossing from Dover to Calais this morning had been rough, and her stomach was just now settling. Then she’d navigated the roads of Flanders on the side opposite of which she was used to driving. Thank God Bedford House Cemetery was deserted on this early weekday afternoon in April. It was a beautiful place, surrounded by farms, quiet, reverent, profoundly sad. She drew in a deep breath of the cool damp air and walked on, moving further into the field of white markers.
The cluster of six headstones was about halfway in, near the center aisle on the left side. They were grouped in two rows of three, back to back, facing away from each other. Meredith walked around them, reading each name. These men had all served together, died on the same day, April 24,1915. One hundred years ago today. She came to the last one, her great grandfather, Lance Corporal, Frederick Jennings, Welsh Regiment. In one month’s time, 70,000 Allied soldiers, including Freddie Jennings, had died in the Second Battle of Ypres. He had been 22 years old, married less than a year, his young wife newly pregnant with the daughter he would never know.
A tear trailed down Meredith’s cheek. That daughter, Anne, was Meredith’s grandmother. Meredith buried her face in the bouquet and inhaled. The lilies’ delicate scent filled her nostrils and made her smile. What would Freddie Jennings think of his great granddaughter laying flowers on his grave? She was the only one left to do it, Gran had made Meredith promise she would go. It had been her dying wish. She conjured the image of the young man from the wedding photograph Gran had kept on her bedside table. He’d been tall and handsome. At 22, he retained some of the lanky awkwardness of youth.
The crunch of gravel behind her made Meredith turn sharply. Another car had pulled into the parking lot. She watched as the man emerged from the vehicle and walked in her direction. He stopped and consulted the sign at the entrance that explained the history and the layout of the cemetery. Well, she thought, the solitude had been nice while its lasted. She faced the headstone once again and rested her hand on top of it. “Goodbye, Freddie,” she murmured. “See you next year.”
“Don’t go on my account,” said the voice behind her.
Meredith jumped, sucking in a breath. The man had approached more quickly than she would have expected. She turned to face him as he moved closer. He was tall, quite handsome and… familiar? She smiled, recovering her manners. “It’s all right.”
He moved closer and stood beside her, his brow furrowing in concentration. He pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket and studied it, mumbling under his breath.
“What was that?” Meredith asked.
“Oh, sorry.” He gestured to the headstone. “I said I found him.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve been researching my family history. I’m the last one. Everyone else is gone.” He hung his head, cleared his throat. “I… I have no one. I’m all alone.”
Meredith’s eyes widened. “This is your…?” she began, lifting a hand and letting it drop.
“My great-grandfather and his brother were both killed in the war. Great granddad’s body was never found but… I believe this was his brother. I’ve found my great granduncle.”
Meredith laid the lilies on the grass in front of Frederick Jennings’ grave and turned to face the man. She smiled and held out her hand. “Hello, cousin. You’re not alone anymore.”
Chapter Two: The Letters and the Locket
Meredith filled the kettle from the tap at the kitchen sink. The view outside the window was obscured by the driving snow. On any other day, Meri would have thought it was picturesque but today it felt bleak and oppressive. She was trapped inside her tiny cottage with nothing to do. She hadn’t even been able to take her customary walk into town for a coffee. The daily ritual provided her with more than just exercise, it gave her the chance to meet her new neighbors, to become a familiar face in the small college town that she had called home since the start of the fall semester.
The water overflowed in the kettle while she was staring at the snow. She poured some of it back out and dried her hands. The igniter on the gas stove tick, tick, ticked until the flame caught and whooshed up from the burner. Meri set the kettle to boil and reached for the tea tin, the one Gran had given her years ago. Meredith still used it to store her loose tea. She spooned a measure of Ceylon leaves into the small ceramic pot, poured the boiling water over them and put on the lid. Exactly four minutes later, with the gentle scent of the brew wafting up on the steam, Meredith filled her teacup and settled onto the sofa with her book.
As she sipped, she found herself reading the same sentences over and over, unable to concentrate. It had been six months since she had left her flat in the city. Left Rob. Well, that was an exaggeration, now wasn’t it? There wasn’t really anything to leave, was there? She hadn’t had the courage to tell him how she felt. They’d circled each other like a couple of prize fighters waiting for the other one to make the first move. In the end, when the semester finished at City University, it was like the bell rang, signaling the end of the match, with the result being a “no decision.”
Meredith’s reverie was broken by pounding on the door. Who the devil would be out in this weather? “I’m coming!” she shouted, setting her cup down on the side table.
The wind gusted as she opened the door, leaving a fine coating of snow on the entryway floor. The shivering figure of the postman stood on the front stoop.
“Charlie! For goodness’ sake, come in, won’t you?” Meredith said, standing aside to admit the older man. “I know you have to go out in all kinds of weather, but this is taking it a little far, don’t you think?”
Charlie chuckled. “No worries, Miss Miles. You’re my last delivery. I’ll be heading home now.” He handed her a bundle of letters and a small package. “I thought I should get these to you right away. It’s looks like there might’ve been a problem forwarding your mail from your old address. Some of these are months old. Figured you shouldn’t have to wait any longer for them. Just in case they were important.”
“Thank you Charlie, you’re very kind.”
“Right, well. I’ll be going then, Miss,” he said, ducking back out into the storm.
Meredith thumbed through the envelopes, some of them junk mail. She tossed these aside. The remaining three envelopes had caught her attention. United States postmark, return address, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Sent by David W.Jennings, her cousin, her closest living relative. Damn, why hadn’t she just given him her e-mail? The first one had been sent shortly after they had met at the gravesite of her great grandfather, David’s great granduncle. The next one, a month later and the last one just a few weeks ago. She found her letter opener and slit open the one dated May 1st.
It was such an unexpected pleasure meeting you last week. I wanted to express my thanks for your taking the time to fill in some of the gaps in my family history. I also very much enjoyed getting to know you as well. The tour of the Flanders region was an extremely moving experience. Again, I thank you for spending your afternoon with me.
I hope this isn’t too forward of me, but I felt a real connection to you and would like to pursue a friendship. As we are the only two left of our small extended family, I thought perhaps you would welcome the idea. Business will bring me to England in the late summer. Maybe we could meet for dinner? I’d be delighted to spend a few extra days in the country, if you have some free time. You mentioned that you taught at City University? Would you be between semesters then? I’m not familiar with how the British education system works, forgive me! Anyway, I’ll wait to make my arrangements until after I’ve heard from you. If it’s too much trouble or not a good time, I will understand.
Meredith sighed. What a shame. The letter had missed her by a few days at the most. The next one, dated a month later was a greeting card with a quick message.
Hi, Meredith, Just a quick follow up. I need to make my plans for August and was checking to see if we are able to get together? Best regards, David
Finally, the last one, dated August 17th.
I’m trying one last time to get in touch with you. I went to the address you had given me, on the outside chance my correspondence hadn’t reached you. Much to my dismay, I found out that you had moved. Fortunately, one of your neighbors was home and saw me knocking on the door and told me that you’d been gone since the end of May. I assume my first letter didn’t make it in time. If, after this note, I don’t hear from you, I will take it to mean that you do not wish to correspond. I truly hope this is not the case. I’m including my e-mail address so that you may reply (or not) right away. Sorry to be a bother.
Meredith looked at her watch. It would be the wee hours of the morning on the east coast of the United States. If she sent David an e-mail now, he would see it as soon as he checked his mail this morning. She went to the desk in the corner and powered up her laptop. While the machine booted, she tore open the paper on the small package. A handwritten note wrapped a small gift box. She set the note aside and opened the lid to reveal an antique locket. She opened the delicate hinge to see two tiny portraits inside. The faded images were of a pair of little boys. Meredith reached for the note and read:
I thought of you when I found this among my father’s things. It belonged to our great great grandmother and the photos within are of her sons, Frederick and William, our great grandfathers when they were little boys. As the last of the women in our family line, I wanted you to have this. Enjoy. Love, David
Her eyes brimmed with tears. What a sweet man her third cousin was. The poor dear had probably given up hope of hearing from her. Well, it was time to make that right. She opened the e-mail and began.
My dearest cousin,
I am so sorry…
Chapter Three: Winter In Philadelphia
David dreamed about Meredith. It was one of those hazy dreams where nothing really happens. Meredith was sitting across from him at an outdoor cafe. They were sipping coffee, not speaking, not even looking at one another, when a sudden downpour chased them, laughing, indoors. Rain. It was the rain that had penetrated his dreams. It battered against the windows of his Philadelphia apartment. The walk to work today would be miserable. His office was just far enough away that he felt foolish getting a cab. Maybe he’d take a personal day. God knows he deserved one.
He rolled over and reached for his phone. He hit the power button to check the time. It read: 4:02 am. He groaned and pulled the duvet up around his chin. Meredith. He cursed his own presumptuousness. He must have come on too strong. Just because he had felt a connection to his cousin, didn’t mean the feeling was mutual. Certainly, after all these months, the mail would have caught up with her. She would have contacted him if she’d wanted to stay in touch. He never should have sent the family heirloom through the mail, without first getting a reply. Stupid of him.
Just as he was drifting off to sleep, his phone chimed an alert. That was weird. He had all his alerts turned off. Well, except for his personal e-mail account. That must be it. It was probably his buddy, Mike sending more photos of his baby girl. Who else would be out of bed at this hour, besides a set of new parents? Anyway, the rest of his friends kept in touch over social media, nothing so archaic as e-mail. He sighed. He was wide awake; he might as well get up.
The steel-grey sky was just beginning to lighten and the battering rain had turned to sleet. David started coffee brewing and perused the pile of work he’d brought home with him. He probably had enough to keep him busy for the day if he didn’t go to the office. The stack of files sat on the tiny table that doubled as a desk in the cramped apartment. The rest of the table was taken up with his laptop. He would have been able to afford a bigger place if he’d been willing to sacrifice this location. He wasn’t. If he had to live 500 miles from his friends and his hometown, he was bloody well going to enjoy himself. The apartment was right in the heart of the city, near all the restaurants and bars, shops and cafes. Even the Walnut Street Theater was within walking distance. Besides, he didn’t need a lot of room, especially with all the traveling he did for work.
The coffee maker beeped that his brew was ready. He poured a cup and swiped open his phone. Might as well see what the baby genius was up to. He wondered if he’d be the same way if he had children. He chuckled. Probably. When he opened the e-mail, though, it wasn’t from Mike. ProfMermaid@steans.ac.uk. The subject line read: So sorry cousin. Meredith! ProfMermaid, ha! Very clever. She was a professor of Ancient History at St. Eanswith College in a small coastal town, southeast of London. Her expertise was in Greek and Roman mythology, so the play on words went beyond her name. Well, well. She had finally got back to him.
My Dearest Cousin,
I am so sorry that I’m just contacting you now. I’m afraid all the mail you sent over the last several months has just reached me today. Thank you so very much for sending the locket. I will treasure it dearly. What a terrible shame you missed me by just a few days. I would have enjoyed your company tremendously. You would most certainly have been welcome to stay and spend time with me. Perhaps we can try that again, if you are going to travel to England for business. In fact, I have just thought of this, since I have time off for the holidays, maybe you could join me while college is on mid-term break? I know it’s only a few weeks away, but you would only need a flight. I have a place for you to stay. I would offer to travel to you, but my funds, unfortunately, are limited. I’d love to show you Gran’s old photo albums. I’m sure some of these pictures are of your side of the family as well. Especially now that I’ve seen the photos inside the locket. Communication should be easier now that I have your e-mail. I should have thought of it before this. Again, my deepest apologies for my earlier lack of response. I hope you understand and forgive me.
Travel to England in the middle of winter? The weather was likely to be bleak. Hell, it was bleak here. He hadn’t made any plans for the holidays. Wasn’t much of a celebrant. Sure, one of his friends was likely to take pity on him and invite him to come visit. It only emphasized his aloneness when he was with someone else’s happy family, though. His cousin wanted to see him. She might be able to help with the family history he’d been compiling. He smiled. Damned if he would pass that up. He hit the reply arrow and began typing.
Chapter Four: The Right Place
David stood at the curb, waiting for Meredith to pick him up. He texted her when he was just about to exit Terminal 5. Heathrow was bustling with other holiday travelers on this last Saturday before Christmas. When she finally pulled up in her VW Golf, he sighed in relief. She looked happy to see him. It was hard to tell what a person was really thinking when the only way you communicated was through e-mail. She laughed at his two large suitcases. “Cousin, how long were you planning to stay? We do have washing machines, you know.”
He reddened. “Sorry. Just didn’t want to be caught unprepared.” He hoisted the suitcases into the hatch, then folded his long legs into the front seat beside her. He grinned sheepishly. “I wasn’t sure about the weather.”
“Well, I suppose that’s wise. The weather’s been all over the place. We went from snow two weeks ago, to feeling like spring today.” She merged into traffic and exited the airport. David kept quiet and let her concentrate on driving. “So, the flight was all right?” she asked, when they’d reached the motorway.
“Good. Are you hungry?” She glanced over. “Or would you rather just go home and have a rest?”
“No, some lunch would hit the spot. I’d rather just try and stay awake so I can acclimate to the time difference. Is that all right with you?” he asked. She looked a little tired herself. Had she lost weight? Or was he just remembering wrong?
“It’s fine.” She smiled. “We’ll stop at my favorite cafe in town. It’s on the way to my house.”
Meredith asked about his work. He told her things were busy. The company was expanding into Europe. There were plans to open up new facilities next year. He asked her how she’d been spending her break from school. She said she’d been catching up on the reading she’d been missing out on while teaching her classes.
The cafe wasn’t crowded on this last Saturday before the holidays. The students had mostly left for their homes and the town had quieted considerably in their absence. “Let’s sit outside,” Meredith had suggested. “Who knows if we’ll get another chance.” David had agreed.
They perused the menu and David asked, “What do you like? Any suggestions for me?”
She recommended the shepherd’s pie and they each ordered it. She said, “I thought I’d try to make dinner at home tonight. I figured you’d be tired and want to turn in early. You know, rather than go out again.”
“Yes, that sounds perfect. I have so much to show you, too. And I can’t wait to have a look at your grandmother’s scrapbooks and albums.”
They sat across from one another sipping their coffee, in comfortable silence. David smiled, remembering his dream. Meredith raised an eyebrow. “Something funny?”
A sudden gust of wind rushed in, flapping the table cloth and knocking over the centerpiece. Rain began to splatter against the ground and all the diners scrambled for the door. David took Meredith’s arm and pulled her inside, where she leaned against him laughing. “Well, that was unexpected.”
David kept an arm around her and said, “I guess we’ll eat inside.”
“Cousin? Are you all right?” Meredith asked. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
David laughed. “No. Not a ghost. Just a remarkable sense of deja vu.”
“They say that means you’re in the right place at the right time,” she said.
“Well, I’ve no doubt of that,” he said shaking his head.
It was only a few minutes’ drive to her cottage but rather than go straight home, Meredith followed the coast road. At a convenient place, she pulled over and parked. They huddled under her umbrella and looked out over the English Channel. She told him you could see France on a clear day. David inhaled the cool, moist air and sighed contentedly.
That afternoon, when David had unpacked and had a chance to freshen up, he brought a black binder out to Meredith’s small dining table and set it down. She looked up from her book. “What’s this?”
“I photocopied all the letters and cards William sent home. That way I don’t have to keep handling the originals.” He opened to the first one. “Have a look.”
Meredith came over to stand beside him. She looked at the first letter, read the neat handwriting. David’s great-grandfather had been excited, as were many of the young men at that time, to go off to war. He described his training, the friends he was making, how they couldn’t wait to go and liberate “poor little Belgium.” She turned the pages, there were letters, post cards, a few photographs. She too, had a collection of letters from her great-grandfather, William’s brother Frederick. Her gran had saved them, preserved everything in scrapbooks and albums. Her mother had wanted her to know, if only through his writing, the kind of man her father, Frederick, had been. Meredith looked up at David. He must be exhausted by now.
“Cousin, let’s not get into this tonight. We have two weeks. Sit and relax. I’ll fix you a drink and then start our supper.” She pointed to the sofa. “Go on.”
David watched as Meredith bustled about in the kitchen. She quickly chopped vegetables and grated cheese. He sipped her single malt whisky and savored. Now she whipped eggs in a bowl. “I’m just making omelettes, Cousin. Hope that’s alright.”
A few minutes later she called him to come to the table. The omelettes were delicious, he told her. She blushed and thanked him. She said that she didn’t often get to cook for anyone else and that her skills were limited. He said he thought she did just fine.
He asked what kind music she liked. They liked the same things. She asked what he was reading. He named a popular American author. She read historical fiction. He told her he’d like to see the countryside if she didn’t mind showing him. She said she would be happy to. She asked if he’d like to hike along the coast one day. He said he would. He wanted to spend a day in London, too. She said she’d take him to the British Museum. He thought that sounded wonderful. They finished eating but didn’t leave the table. They kept talking until David finally yawned.
“Well,” Meredith said, rising from the table, “it’s getting late. I’ll clean up the dishes and let you get to bed, if you’d like.”
“Let me help you,” he offered, reaching for the same plate she had. They played tug of war with it until Meredith finally relented, laughing.
“All right, you can wash, I’ll dry and put away. Satisfied?” she asked, grinning.
David had his hands in the soapy water when the doorbell rang. He looked at his cousin, startled. She looked as surprised as he. She glanced at the clock. “I’ve no idea who it could be at this hour,” she said.
David dried his hands and followed her to the door. She opened it and gasped. A tall, lean man about his own age stood leaning against the doorjamb. He was sandy-haired, bearded and handsome in a bookish kind of way. He had also obviously been drinking. “Rob! What are you doing here?”
“Hello, Meri,” he said, slowly smiling. “I missed you. Thought I’d come for a visit.” He looked at David and frowned. “Who’s this?”
Chapter Five: The Morning After
Meredith sat at the kitchen table, her robe belted tightly around her, sipping her coffee. The day promised to be a dreary one, not much good for sightseeing. She sighed heavily. Maybe David wouldn’t mind a day of rest. They could begin looking at the albums and scrapbooks. He seemed to be eager to get started. She laid a hand over her belly and grimaced. She felt sick and the coffee wasn’t helping. Why did she do this over and over again? It was as if she had no power over herself when Rob was around. And it always ended the same way: with Rob sweet talking her into bed and her waking up cold and alone the next morning.
She heard the door open and close down the hall and the water running in the bathroom. David was awake. She pushed her hands through her hair and pinched her cheeks to give them some color. There was no way she would let her cousin realize how dreadful she felt. By the time David had emerged from the back of the house, Meredith had composed herself.
“Good morning, cousin,” she greeted him brightly.
“Good morning,” he replied. He looked around, frowning. “Your… friend is gone?”
“Ha! Oh, yes,” she said. “He had to be off early. Other people to see for the holidays, you know.” She rose and went to the coffee pot. “How do you take your coffee, cousin?”
“Black with sugar,” he said. Clearing his throat, he continued, “I didn’t realize you were, um… seeing someone. You never said. I hope I didn’t make things awkward for you.”
She kept her back to him. “No, not at all. I… We… That is to say, Rob and I… well, it’s er, not a serious thing. And em, I wasn’t really expecting him, but…” she trailed off. “Anyway, here you go.” She smiled and handed him a mug.
He accepted it, studying her intently. Her smile was little too bright, like she was forcing it. The pain in her eyes was apparent, though she was obviously trying to hide it. Meredith was hurting and didn’t want him to know. Feelings of protectiveness and righteous indignation welled up inside him. She averted her gaze. He was making her uncomfortable. That was the last thing she needed right now. Mentally shaking himself, he smiled broadly. “Thanks, Meredith.”
When he smiled, she relaxed. He had a wonderful smile, full of warmth and sincerity. It bothered her that she worried what he thought of her. She realized she wouldn’t be able to bear it if she disappointed him. Where had that come from?
David sipped his coffee and sighed. “That hits the spot. So, what do you want to do today?”
“It’s not a great day for sightseeing, so I thought we could start perusing the letters and photos. What do you say?”
“That sounds perfect. If it’s all the same, though, I’d like to get a little exercise first.”
“Of course. What did you have in mind?”
“I’d like to run. Is there a good spot for it?” he asked.
Meredith grinned. “I know just the thing. Mind some company?”
Meredith and David drove out to the coast road and parked. Then she led him to a path hidden by the bushes that ran parallel to the road. David let her set the pace and was pleasantly surprised at her athletic ability. The air was moist with the misty rain and the mild temperatures kept the ocean breeze from feeling too chilly. It was all David could do to keep his eyes on the path and off the magnificent view of the ocean below. When they returned to the car, they were both breathing heavily. Meredith unlocked the car and handed David a bottle of water. “So,” she gasped, “not bad, right?”
“It’s amazing. I could get used to this,” David said, deeply breathing in the salty air. “God, it’s pretty here.” Spontaneously, he leaned down and kissed her forehead. “Thank you, Meri.”
She wasn’t sure which thing surprised her more: his gesture of affection or his use of her nickname. She swallowed hard. “You’re welcome.”
“So, what’s next?”
“Home for a shower,” she said. “Then some breakfast?”
Meredith let him go first, figuring he wouldn’t take as long. While the water ran in the bath, she put on a fresh pot of coffee and sliced up some fruit for their breakfast. She let her mind wander back to the previous evening.
David had introduced himself to Rob as Meredith’s cousin from America before beating a hasty retreat to his room. He’d made the excuse that he was tired from the long trip and needed an early night anyway. As soon as David’s door had closed, Rob had pulled Meredith into his arms.
“I miss you, Meri,” he breathed into her ear as his hands roamed up and down her back.
She found herself responding to him the same way she always did. And now, the morning after, she hated herself for it. This was why she’d left the city – to get away from him. He wouldn’t commit to her, liked things the way they were, tried to convince her that she did too. He was like a drug she was addicted to. A drug that was slowly poisoning her. A single tear trailed down her cheek. She was so lost in her misery, she hadn’t heard the water shut off, hadn’t heard David come up behind her. “Meri,” he said softly.
When his comforting hand rested on her shoulder, the last of her defenses dissolved. She turned into him, buried her head against his chest and wept. His arms went around her and he murmured soothing noises while she sobbed. He cursed the man that did this to her and swore to himself that he’d never let the bastard hurt his cousin again.
Chapter Six: Tea and Sympathy
Meredith sat back and leaned her head against the sofa. She closed her tired eyes and yawned. David was still reading aloud one of the letters his great-grandfather had written to his mother as he trained for his deployment to Belgium.
They had spent the better part of the day organizing and sorting the jumble that comprised Meredith’s collection of memorabilia. David had insisted on making a photocopy of each precious document so as not to damage it with the oils from their fingers or a careless tear of the delicate paper. She had been grateful for the distraction and equally grateful that after her emotional collapse earlier, David hadn’t expected her to talk about it. Nevertheless, the events of this morning hung over them like a shroud, casting a gloom over what should have been an enjoyable project.
“Cousin,” she said, laying a hand on his arm. “Let’s take a break and I’ll fix us some tea.”
He looked over, blinked and shook his head slightly to clear it. “Sorry. What time is it? I’ve totally lost track.”
“It’s nearly four,” she replied, rising. “Don’t let me stop you. Keep reading.”
“All right. I’m almost finished anyway,” he said. Clearing his throat, he continued, “…and please, if you are able, send extra socks and underclothes right away, for it is likely that we’ll be moving out soon. The weather is quite cold. I imagine it’s worse at the Front. If my letter to Ada doesn’t reach her before this one to you, reassure her that I have written and send her my love. Your affectionate son, William.”
“Ada? That’s your great-grandmother, right?” Meredith asked, filling the kettle and setting it to boil.
“Yes. They hadn’t married, yet.”
Meredith raised her eyebrows. “Really? How on earth did they find time to marry during the war?”
David shrugged. “I guess they squeezed in the ceremony when William was home on a short leave.” He grinned wickedly. “And he managed to get her pregnant before he left. They must have spent the whole time in bed.”
She turned self-consciously to the whistling kettle. “Ha. Well… yes… I suppose so.” She fussed with filling the teapot and pouring boiling water over the leaves to steep.
Oblivious to her discomfiture, David continued, “Young love. Isn’t it grand? They had no idea what they were in for, did they? I wonder if they would’ve done things differently.”
“Probably not,” she sighed. “Have you never been in love, David?”
His smile faded. “Of course I have.”
Meredith silently cursed herself for doing to him what he had so kindly avoided doing to her. Pouring the tea into cups, she said, “Well, then you know perfectly well that you don’t think clearly when you’re in love.” She paused. “Lemon? Milk and sugar?”
“Just sugar, thanks,” he replied. “And your absolutely right. You don’t think clearly.” Under his breath, he added, “I know that all too well.”
“I’m sorry, I should’t pry,” she said, handing him his tea.
“It’s alright,” he said, accepting the cup from her. He gave her what he hoped was a reassuring smile. “I’m divorced, Meredith. For about seven years, now.”
“I’m sorry,” she repeated.
David rose when she retreated to the kitchen and followed her. “Meredith, you don’t have to apologize. I’m sure the subject would have come up eventually.”
“Here,” she said, handing him the sugar bowl. “Well, we don’t have to talk about it now. Would you like to keep going with the letters, or…”
“No,” he sighed. “Enough. Meredith, let’s clear the air, shall we?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” she said, not meeting his eyes.
“No? You haven’t noticed the eight-hundred pound gorilla in the corner? Because he’s been staring me down all day.” He took the sugar bowl from her and set it back down. “You’re hurting, Meri. Talk to me.”
She hung her head, started gnawing on the cuticle of her right thumb.
He began again, “Look, I know we’re just getting to know each other but after what happened… I mean, it’s not like I don’t know…” He cursed under his breath. “What I’m trying to say is… you don’t have to be embarrassed. We all have a story.”
“I’m going to need something stronger than tea,” she muttered.
He went to the sideboard and splashed two healthy shots of the single malt into their teacups. After returning the bottle to the sideboard, he said, “That should help.” He gestured to the living room. “After you.”
Meredith savored the warmth from the tea, the extra kick from the whiskey. She returned to the sofa where their combined collection of documents was spread out. Sitting heavily on the cushion, she closed her eyes while David straightened up the mess. He shut the binder, returned all the original letters to their envelopes, retied the bundle with the ribbon that had bound them for so many years and tucked them safely in the shoebox they had been stored in. He stacked the untouched scrapbook on top of the binder to be perused another time. A small scrap of paper —a faded newspaper clipping— floated to the floor. Meredith picked it up when it settled near the foot of the sofa. She gently straightened the edges where it had creased and set it next to her teacup, using the delay to collect her thoughts.
“I met Rob at the university,” she said quietly. Slowly, the whole story came out. How she and Rob had worked together, how he had charmed her during wine-soaked conversations about books and art. They’d spend rainy afternoons beneath the blankets, drinking strong coffee and reading. He’d made her feel like the only woman in the world, at least in the beginning.
“Things went on, never changing. I kept hoping… for something. Some sign that we were taking the relationship forward.” She nervously twirled a lock of hair. “It never happened. A few times I tried to talk to him about it. He’d always change the subject. Or he’d say something like ‘Don’t I show you how I feel, Meri?’ or ‘Don’t spoil what we have’.”
“Making it your fault,” David remarked.
“Right. Like I was asking too much of him.” She sipped her tea and set the cup on the table in front of her. “I tried to break it off. He’d come over with flowers, wine.”
“And you’d give in,” David said.
She nodded. “And things would go right back to the way they were.”
“Oh, Meredith, you deserve so much better.”
“Do I?” she asked, sarcastically. “I’m weak, David. Maybe I deserve exactly what I get.”
“I don’t believe that for a minute,” he said gently. He reached over and took her hand between both of his. “You had the strength to leave, right?”
“Ha! But the first time he shows up on my doorstep, look what happens.” She took the clipping and started turning it over in her fingers. “God, I hate myself sometimes.”
“You were manipulated, Meri. You said it yourself —you don’t think clearly when you’re in love. He took advantage of that.” He paused, frowning. Meredith was no longer paying attention to him. “Meri, what is it?”
She looked up at him, wide-eyed. “When did you say William and Ada married?”
Chapter Seven: Survived By a Daughter
The fire, which had offered such comfort from the damp and cold of the deteriorating afternoon, now felt oppressively warm. David pulled the collar of his shirt, swallowing hard. He must have read it wrong. For a second time, he squinted at the scrap of paper Meredith had handed him. An obituary — his great grandmother’s. He reached into the pocket of his shirt for his glasses and read the words again. “Survived by a daughter, Gladys and a son, Hayden…” he murmured.
“Cousin?” Meredith asked gently.
“That can’t be right,” he said, handing the clipping back to her. “Could it be a mistake?”
“Do you really think there’s another Ada Henry Jennings that lived and died at that exact same time, in that exact same place? Besides, why would it be in my Gran’s scrapbook, if it wasn’t your great-grandmother?” she asked. She re-read the clipping for herself. “1918…The influenza?”
He nodded. “Leaving behind a baby —or two, apparently— to grow up without either parent.” He frowned. “According to Dad, the great-greats took Hayden in. They raised him as their own. But I really don’t know much about his childhood. I was hoping perhaps your Gran’s collection would shed some light on it. But now…”
“We have another mystery on our hands.”
He removed his glasses and set them on the table. Then, after taking a healthy swallow of his tea, he said, “You know what this means, don’t you?”
She nodded. “You might have a great-aunt, second cousins. Relatives closer than me.”
“And,” he said, pinching the bridge of his nose. “This… Gladys would have been born before…”
“William and Ada were married,” she finished for him. “How positively scandalous.” She laughed softly. “It happened, you know, even back then.”
“It would have been so hard for them, though.”
“Of course,” she replied. “David, your grandfather, Hayden, never mentioned that he had a sister?”
“He died when I was little. And he didn’t share much with my father.” He paused, took a deep breath. “My father didn’t like talking about it, but I have the impression that he and my grandfather had a… difficult…. relationship.” He sipped again and returned the cup to the table in front of him. “They weren’t on speaking terms when Grandfather died. Dad left home when he was seventeen, joined the army, went to college on the GI Bill and never looked back.”
“But your father never said anything? That he had aunt somewhere?”
David stared at his hands. “No. He mustn’t have known. He would have told me. His mother gave him what little memorabilia Grandfather had saved. He made sure to pass it on to me.”
“Family was important to him, despite his … difficult relationship with his father?”
“Perhaps, because of it. He always wished for a large family. Mom had a tough pregnancy. They couldn’t have more children after me… He was a good father…” He lifted his hands, let them drop. “I think he really wanted some kind of connection to his own ancestors. That’s why I started compiling the family history. For my father. I was trying to finish it before my parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. It would have been my gift to them.” He paused, then said quietly, “If they had made it.”
Meredith didn’t say anything. David had told her the story the first time they had met. How his parents had been driving south like they did every winter to their house in Florida. Thomas Jennings had apparently fallen asleep at the wheel and drifted into the path of an oncoming truck. He and his wife Ellen had been killed instantly.
“Anyway,” David sighed. “I can’t understand why there was no mention of this Gladys in William’s letters.”
“And why did they wait to get married?”
David’s eyes widened. “You’re right. Why didn’t they marry as soon as they learned Ada was pregnant? Surely, it would have saved them both a little humiliation.”
“You’re sure there’s nothing in the letters? Something you might have overlooked or not recognized for what it was?”
“We’ll have to look again.” He turned in his seat to face her. “Suddenly, I’m no longer so tired.”
Meredith rolled her eyes. “Well, I am. I’m the one who had … um, very little sleep last night.”
“Oh, right. Forgot about that.” He raised an eyebrow. “I don’t believe we finished that conversation.”
She stood and reached for their teacups. “Just leave it, David. I don’t want to talk about my abysmal love life and my weakness for charming, intellectual assholes.” She continued over her shoulder, “Let’s start dinner and make it an early night. I promise we can spend the entire day working on it, tomorrow. But for now, let’s talk about something else.”
“Fine,” he said following her into the kitchen. “What else would you like to talk about?”
“Well, since we’re on the subject,” she said, grinning wickedly. “You can tell me about your abysmal love life, instead.”
He laughed. “Now, I’m going to need something stronger!”
Chapter Eight: Going Home
Meredith passed the plate of bacon across the table. “Did you manage to sleep at all, Cousin?”
“Hardly,” David answered, not looking up from the sheet of paper. The truth was, he’d slept just fine, but he’d been so plagued with dreams –vivid dreams– that it felt like he hadn’t slept at all.
Two scenes kept repeating over and over. The first — a simple vignette of Ada and Will walking down a street, Will was pushing a carriage conveying a little girl, dressed in the clothes of the day, her ringlets topped with a bow, and additional bows adorning her little shoes and the frills of her dress.
The second scene was a horror. The smoke of battle, the shriek of mortar fire, explosions all around him, as if he were a soldier right at the front lines. Mud, barbed wire, the smell of death, from the bodies of horses and his fallen comrades. The wounded screaming in pain and terror. David shook his head to clear it.
“Here, listen to this… In one of Freddie’s letters to his mother from his training camp, he writes… ‘I haven’t heard from Will since I’ve arrived. I trust he’s no closer to resolving things than he was when I left. Please pass on my best wishes and hopes that he might be able to join me soon.’ It sounds like Will was having some sort of trouble preventing him from leaving. Would he really be joining his brother in the same unit, though?”
“Yes, friends and brothers were encouraged to enlist together. It was supposed to be better for morale. It backfired when all the boys from the same town would die fighting in the same battles,” Meredith said.
“Or all the boys in the same family,” David added. “Dreadful.”
“But to answer your first question, yes, that sounds like Will had some sort of trouble.” Meredith sighed. “David, eat something before it gets cold.”
“What? Oh, right,” he said, taking the plate from her hands. David nibbled absently on a strip of bacon while continuing to peruse the pages of photocopied letters. The correspondence ended abruptly in the spring of 1915, when Freddie lost his life on Flanders’ fields. David sat back in his chair and ran his fingers through his hair. “What next, Meri?”
She put down her coffee and dabbed her lips with the napkin. “Fresh air. Let’s go for a walk and think about it. Come up with a plan. I love research, David, but I cannot stand a haphazard approach. We’ll end up running in circles.”
They bundled in warm coats, hats and gloves. The weather had once again turned cold, as if it knew it was the longest night – the start of winter.
“What shall we do for Christmas, Cousin?” Meredith asked. “Would you like me to cook you a goose?”
David laughed. “No, don’t be ridiculous! What would you normally do?”
“I’d get takeaway Chinese and spend the day reading,” she answered. “What about you?”
“One of my friends would take pity on me,” he replied. “Which sometimes is even worse than being alone.”
“Anyway,” he said, waving a hand dismissively. “Let’s keep it simple.” He hesitated, then said, “I did, however, buy you a gift…”
Meredith stopped short. Putting a hand on his arm, she smiled. “I bought something for you, too. God, I hope you didn’t fuss!”
He grinned. “No, it’s not much… But I think you’ll like it.”
“Now, tell me what should we do next?”
She resumed walking. “I think we need to go home, David. We need to visit Turnby, the village where our family lived.”
Chapter Nine: The Best Laid Plans
“So, Turnby?” David asked. “Have you ever been?”
Meredith nodded. “Yes, all the time. That’s where Gran lived. Well, until she couldn’t care for the house anymore. At the time, I hadn’t seen myself leaving the city, otherwise I could’ve stayed with her, kept the house.” She sighed. “But its too late now. The house was sold a few years back and Gran went into a care home.”
“I’m sorry, Meri,” David said, reaching for her hand. He tucked her arm in the crook of his as they continued their walk along the snow covered path into town. For a while neither of them said anything, the silence comfortable, friendly. Then David said, “Meri, you have no idea how… how right… this feels. Being here with you, getting to know you…” He stopped and faced her, putting his hands on her shoulders. “Actually, it feels like I’ve always known you. It’s like the universe fated me to be there at the cemetery that day. Like this was meant to be.”
Meredith smiled. “Well, perhaps the ghosts of William and Frederick conspired for us to meet.”
David studied her face, searched her eyes. Soberly he said, “It does feel that way, doesn’t it?”
“Oh, come now. That was a joke. Surely you believe in that sort of thing?”
He took her arm again and resumed walking. “No, I suppose not.”
“We should set out early tomorrow. It’ll take about five hours to get there.”
“Where will we stay? Is Turnby a big place?” he asked.
“There’s a quaint old seaside inn. Nothing fancy, but it’s picturesque.” They’d reached the outskirts of the town. “Let’s go back and I’ll call and see about rooms.”
They made an about face and retraced their steps toward Meredith’s house. David asked, “Where do we look for answers once we get there?”
“We’ll stop at the county records office on the way in. We should be able get a look at the birth and death records for everyone in the family that lived there over the period of time we’re interested in.”
“So they’ll be able to tell us who Gladys is and what happened to her after Ada died?”
Meredith shrugged. “Hopefully. If no one in our grandparents’ generation knew about her, she must’ve disappeared right after her mother died. Or maybe she even died herself. Perhaps a childhood disease or something.”
“That makes sense.”
“But if there are no death records for her, it will be exceedingly difficult to find out what happened to her. The entire generation is gone. Even folks our grandparents’ age are few and far between.”
“So you’re not hopeful, then, are you?” David asked, looking dejected.
“I just want to be realistic. But,” she said, patting his arm. “We will be able to at least see when she was born.”
He sighed. “But what good will that do?”
“It will give us a time frame for further research. We can see what else was happening during that time. Gran used to be friends with the local librarian. As far as I know she still works there. So that will be our second stop. To consult with Miss Woodbridge.” Meredith stopped suddenly and gripped David’s arm.
“What is it?” David asked.
“Miss Woodbridge, of course!” Meredith laughed. “The archivist. Her father fancied himself the town’s historian. Not that Turnby has much of a claim to fame. Maybe a Saxon invasion point or something… Anyway, Mr. Woodbridge collected all sorts of memorabilia concerning the town and it’s residents. There is a manor house, an old posh home up the hill from the main part of the town. The family doesn’t live there any longer. They ‘daughtered out’ as the saying goes and it’s been converted to a hotel.”
“And we’re not staying there because…?” David asked with a grin.
“Too rich for my blood, Cousin.”
He laughed. “We could share a room to save money,” he added with a wink.
Meredith blushed and swatted him. “Cousin, that would be awkward to say the least!” But she looked at David, tall and dark haired. The laugh lines at the corners of his blue eyes. He hadn’t shaved that morning and the stubble gave him a roguish look.
He glanced over. “What? You’re thinking about it, aren’t you?” he asked, giving her a playful elbow.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she laughed. Yes, ridiculous, she thought. But as she stole a final glance from the corner of her eye, she wondered what might happen if David weren’t her cousin.
Chapter Ten: Resurrecting the Dead
The Seafarer Inn at Turnby wasn’t busy during the week of Christmas. Meredith reserved two rooms for them on Tuesday and Wednesday evening. It wasn’t enough time for a thorough investigation, but it was a place to start. There might not even be anything to investigate, but they wouldn’t know until they tried.
Tuesday dawned crisp and bright. Meredith brewed coffee and filled a thermos while David made egg sandwiches for them to take along. He smiled to himself at the domesticity of it all. She let him drive for the first half of the trip since once they got on the motorway, left side driving wouldn’t seem as unfamiliar on the four lane road. She took over after they stopped for lunch.
“It’s not much longer now,” she said. “Miss Woodbridge is expecting us for tea. It’ll give us time to check in and freshen up a bit before we see her.”
Meredith navigated the narrow streets of the old town with the confidence of a local. The Seafarer was situated on a promontory facing the crashing waves of the North Sea. The gravel drive culminated in a parking lot on the right side of the building. David carried Meredith’s overnight bag despite her protests. The wind blowing off the winter sea whipped her dark hair around her face and she laughed. As she struggled to tame it, David smiled. She looked like a Celtic goddess blown in from the sea.
He allowed her to lead the way into the pub area of the inn. A plump, friendly looking man of indeterminate age smiled at them from behind the bar. He had just one customer who turned to get a look at the newcomers as they made their way over.
“Welcome. Miss Miles, is it?” he said, regarding them over his glasses. He motioned for them to follow him to the far end of the bar where a locked cabinet held rows of old fashioned keys on hooks. He pushed a guest book toward them. “Just sign here, dearie. And you too, Mr. … Um, Jennings? Will you be using the credit card you gave us, then?”
“Yes, that will be fine,” Meredith replied.
“You did want two rooms…?” he asked with a twinkle in his eye.
Meredith blushed. “Yes. Mr. Jennings is my cousin.”
The publican looked disappointed. “Oh, I see. Well, then…” He unlocked the cabinet behind him and took out two of the old keys and handed one each to them. “Side by side, they are at least. So you won’t have to look too far to find each other. On the seaside, too. You’ll sleep well with the sound of the waves to carry you off to dreamland.”
“Thank you,” Meredith said.
She turned to David and gestured for him to follow. He laughed softly when they were out of earshot. “I think he was disappointed, cousin. Hoping for a lovers’ rendezvous, I imagine. It’s a good thing he didn’t recognize you.”
She snorted. “Turnby isn’t that small a town.”
They wound their way up the narrow staircase to the second floor. Their rooms were the middle two of four rooms on the right side of the hallway. David waited while Meredith unlocked her door. He followed her inside and dropped her bag on the floor near the foot of the double bed. The room was cozy and comfortable, with white-washed walls and exposed beams. The old fashioned furniture was sturdy and polished to a shine. The wrought iron casement windows were opened just a few inches to let the fresh air into the room. Everything smelled of lemon and salt water. Meredith breathed deep and sighed.
“This is exactly the way I imagined an English seaside inn. It’s wonderful, Meri,” David said stepping to the window to take in the view.
“It is charming, isn’t it,” she replied, stepping forward to stand next to him. They stared at the scene in contented silence. Finally, Meredith said, “Well, why don’t you go see your room and get yourself settled. I’m gong to freshen up a bit.
“Let’s walk,” he said. “Stretch our legs after that long drive.”
Meredith checked her watch. “Tell you what. Let’s just walk over to the records office rather than take the car. It’s not far. And by the time we’re finished there, it will be time for tea with Miss Woodbridge.”
“Perfect. I’ll be right back,” David said, taking his backpack and retreating through the door.
Meredith heard him open the door to the adjacent room and enter. But after that the thick ancient walls of the inn blocked all the noise from next door. She used the bathroom and brushed the tangles from her hair, then bundled the long tresses into a bun at the base of her skull. Not long after, a knock came to her door.
She took her key and joined David in the hallway. As they worked their way to the ground floor, she asked, “Is your room satisfactory?”
“Mmm hmm. Mirror image of yours,” he said. “That view… The waves crashing… and the salt air… I believe I will sleep like the dead tonight.”
“We’ll make it an early night. Have a quick bite in the pub and turn in,” she said.
They waved to the innkeeper on the way out the main entrance. “It’s this way,” Meredith directed.
As they walked, David commented on the architecture of the old buildings that lined the street. Meredith told him what she knew of the history of the town. The county records office was near the center of Turnby, between the courthouse and the post office. The lobby was quiet and no one was tending the reception desk when they walked in.
Meredith cleared her throat, and called out a tentative, “Hello?”
The click of heels on the vinyl floor let them know their presence had been detected. Finally, the glass partition window slid open and the receptionist greeted them. “Sorry, not very busy this time of year. Got caught up in my filing. May I help you?”
“Hello, yes. We’re researching some family history. Trying to fill in some missing details. We were hoping to have a look at the birth records for the years 1913 and 1914.”
“Certainly. It hasn’t been converted to digital format, yet. But it should be on microfilm. Follow me.”
They followed her through a door to a small room with two computer monitors and a microfilm reader. She pushed a second chair over so that they could both have a seat. “Wait here. I’ll be right back.”
“Meri, what about the death records? Marriage licenses, things like that?” David asked.
She shrugged. “That will be more tedious. We know she survived past 1918, so we’ll just have to start looking through the years one by one to see if we can figure out what became of her.”
Moments later the receptionist returned with the microfilms for the years in question and loaded the reader. After demonstrating how to use it, she left them alone. “Just let me know when you’re finished,” she said on her way out the door.
David and Meredith crowded close together, their knees touching. Meredith worked the controls as they scrolled past the records for all the births in 1913. David spotted it first. “There!” he said, pointing. “Gladys Elizabeth Henry, born November 22, 1913. Mother Ada Victoria Henry, Father, unknown.”
“Father unknown?” Meredith repeated. “David you know what that means, right?”
“Gladys wasn’t my great grandfather’s child.”
Chapter Eleven: Miss Woodbridge
Meredith rubbed her eyes. They’d been at this for an hour. After discovering the revelation about Gladys, the only other piece of information they’d found was Hayden’s birth record in 1917. She looked at David and smiled wryly. “I think we’d better get going, David. Miss Woodbridge will be waiting for us.”
David blew out a breath. “I suppose I shouldn’t expect this to be easy.”
“No, it’s going to be like finding a needle in a haystack. Unless we get lucky and Miss Woodbridge is our metal detector,” she said in reply.
She stood and David followed suit. They returned to the lobby area and told the receptionist they were finished for the day. “We’ll be closing at noon on Thursday for the holiday. Just so you know,” she called after them as they walked out.
The sun was sinking low in the winter sky, and with it’s diminishment, so went its warmth. Meredith pulled her coat tightly around her as they left the building. She said, “Tea will hit the spot, I think.”
David pulled her close, tucking her against his side as they walked. “Not as much as answers will.”
“Oh, David. Don’t get your hopes up, will you? The whole thing might dead end on us.”
They walked silently, huddled close and bent against the wind until they reached the street where Miss Woodbridge lived. Her venerable old home retained its dignity and elegance even though the signs of neglect were beginning to show. Meredith remarked, “Exactly what you’d expect of a Victorian spinster, eh?”
David smiled. “Yes, I suppose so.”
They climbed the wide stairs from the walkway to the grand front door. Meredith rang the bell, causing deep mellow chimes to herald their arrival. Miss Woodbridge called out a reedy ‘hello’ and begged them to ‘wait just a moment, she wasn’t as fast on her feet as she used to be.’
“Meredith, my dear! How good to see you!” Miss Cecily Woodbridge, said opening the door to them. “And this must be Mr. Jennings. I’m pleased to meet you. Come in, come in!”
She ushered them into the foyer, closing the door on the cold wind. “I’ll take your coats from you, dears.”
“It’s all right, ma’am,”David said. “If you just tell us where to put them?”
“Very well,” she replied. “The coat stand is just there.”
David helped Meredith out of her coat and hung it with his on the antique fixture, hoping it was sturdy enough to hold the weight.
They waited while Miss Woodbridge shuffled into a parlor crowded with old fashioned furniture, family heirlooms and assorted curiosities. Nearly every bit of surface on the papered walls was covered with ornately-framed oil paintings —portraits, landscapes, stormy seascapes, ships in peril and the like. The fireplace at the far end of the room was lit and giving off welcoming warmth. She slowly made her way to the seating area surrounding the hearth and gestured for them to follow.
“Please sit,” she said, indicating the damask sofa opposite the matching chair she chose for herself. “Let’s have tea, right away. Take the chill off? I’ll have Marion bring it if you like.”
“That sounds lovely, thank you,” Meredith said.
Miss Woodbridge rang a little bell that had been sitting on the side table. Moments later a woman about sixty years younger than the lady of the house appeared.
“Marion, dear, we’ll take the tea now. And do join us won’t you?” Turning back to Meredith and David, she said, “My great-niece, bless her heart, I don’t know what I’d do without her. Comes over every day to get me up and about, doesn’t leave till the children are due home from school.”
She sighed. “How I miss your Grandmother, Meredith. Despite the difference in our ages, she was one of my dearest friends.” Turning to David, she added, “I only wish I had some personal knowledge I could share with you about your side of the family, David. I have vague memories of your grandfather, Hayden. And of your great-grandparents, who raised him. So many young fathers had been taken by the war. And then to have the double tragedy of losing his young mother to the flu. Terrible, just terrible.”
Marion returned with a tray loaded with the teapot and cups, milk and sugar, and a plate of cookies.This she set on the coffee table and served each of them a cup and passed the plate before taking the chair opposite Miss Woodbridge.
The older woman went on, “I certainly hope that Papa’s archives might be able to reveal a clue. One good thing about Papa. Everything is catalogued and well organized. It shouldn’t be difficult to separate out the appropriate documents from the irrelevant ones.”
“Well that’s a relief,” Meredith said.
“Now tell me. What did you find at the records office?”
Meredith explained about the entry of ‘unknown father’ on Gladys’ birth certificate.
“Oh my! The plot thickens!” Miss Woodbridge said, her eyes twinkling. “Well, in a way, that may be good news. That would have been quite scandalous in those days. We are likely to find mention of it somewhere among Papa’s things. His personal diary at a minimum, if not in the public records.” She took a sip of tea. “When would you like to start?”
Meredith glanced at David. “Right away, if that’s all right? We only have the rest of today and tomorrow. We plan on leaving on Thursday morning.”
“Absolutely. I understand. You must have plans for the holiday.”
“Er, well… Just a quiet day at home, actually,” Meredith replied.
Miss Woodbridge clapped her hands together. “Well now! My dears, you must join us here. What do you say, Marion? We can fit two more at the table, can’t we?”
Marion smiled. “Of course, Aunt Cecily.” She turned to Meredith and David. “We’d be delighted to have you join us.”
“Then it’s settled.” Miss Woodbridge said.
Meredith flushed. “I well, I mean, um….”
“We’d love to come,” David said. “On one condition. You must let us help with the preparations.”
Marion waved a hand dismissively, “Nonsense, we’ve got everything well in hand. You just come and enjoy.”
“Splendid! Splendid!” The older woman clasped her hands happily. “And besides, it will give you more time to spend in your research. Now, while you finish your tea, you can begin with that,” she said pointing to a large album lying on the side table. “I’ve marked the page. There’s a photo in there of your grandmother with her mother and her in-laws, your great-great grandparents. It was 1928, Armistice Day. There was a parade to mark the ten years since the end of the war. I was just three or four years old at the time, but its one of my earliest memories. Sitting on Papa’s shoulders so that I could see…”
Meredith opened the fragile old album to the marked page and found the photo in question. David moved in close to take a look, his shoulder and knee touching hers. She breathed in his scent, clean and manly.
“It’s a funny thing,” Miss Woodbridge was saying. “Now that I’ve met you, David, I’m struggling to see a family resemblance…”
Chapter Twelve: Without a Trace
David laughed. “No family resemblance?” he repeated. “I must favor my mother’s side.”
“That must be it,” Miss Woodbridge said. “Now Meredith…. She looks just like her gran when she was that age.”
David regarded his cousin and smiled. “Then she must have been a beautiful woman.”
Meredith took a sip of tea to hide her discomfiture. She cleared her throat. “Let’s stick to the mystery, shall we Cousin?” She tapped the photograph in the old album. Their ancestors stared back at them from the sepia square. Meredith’s grandmother Anne at age thirteen, looking as pretty as a picture, standing with her widowed mother. Hayden, David’s grandfather, a sullen boy of ten, between his grandparents, who’d lost both their sons to the war. It was a somber day, Armistice Day. Too many men hadn’t come home. And even ten years later, it was obvious by their expressions that the pain was still fresh.
Meredith pulled a small notebook from her handbag and opened it to a fresh page. “Let’s list the things we know so far. We know Gladys was born in 1913 and that she was still alive when Ada died in 1918. There wasn’t a record of her death in the files up to 1922 –that’s as far as we got today. And we know that she had already gone missing by the time my gran was able to remember. Which would have been when she was say, between three and four years old, around 1919.”
“And you’re sure your gran would’ve told you?” David asked.
“Absolutely,” Meredith said. “If she knew, she wouldn’t have kept it a secret, especially this long after everyone of that generation was gone. What would be the point?”
“I agree,” Miss Woodbridge affirmed. “Anne felt very strongly about family. Why, look how she tended to her father’s grave. I went with her once when we were both younger. She had such great affection for the father she never knew. I am positive she wouldn’t have hidden a long lost cousin from you, Meredith.” She paused for a moment then asked, “David, I’m going to assume your grandfather didn’t know either?”
He shrugged. “I am going to assume that, too. If he knew, he never told my father. Dad was also very interested in family. That’s what put me on this quest in the first place. To put the family tree in order.” He gave Miss Woodbridge a sad smile. “I suppose it’s a fool’s errand. There’s no one left in this branch but me.”
“Oh, nonsense, David,” the old woman said with a dismissive wave of her hand. “You’ll be able to pass this history on to your own children someday.”
He smiled genuinely this time. “Thank you, my dear Miss Woodbridge for being so optimistic. I, however, have sincere doubts about that outcome.”
“Never say never, my boy,” she said, wagging a finger at him.
“All right,” David went on, suppressing a laugh. “So let’s say Anne’s earliest memories were from 1919, that means Gladys must have disappeared within that first year after her mother’s death in 1918.” He frowned. “Is there any way the death record could’ve been misplaced? You know, with the flu epidemic and all?”
Miss Woodbridge shook her head and replied, “No, no. I really think that is a dead end. Pardon the pun. Why keep her death a secret? She would have been given a funeral and been buried with her mother in the churchyard.”
“And she couldn’t have disappeared through foul play,” Meredith added. “That would have been newsworthy.”
“Is it possible she could’ve been given away?” David asked.
“But why keep one child and not the other? Meredith countered.
“I may have a suggestion,” Marion interjected.
All eyes turned toward the young woman.
“Perhaps her real father claimed her.”
Chapter Thirteen: The Library
“Gladys’ real father claimed her,” David repeated. “Of course. That would make sense.” He rubbed his chin. “But that would mean he was aware of her existence. This opens up a whole new set of questions…. Why, for instance, hadn’t he claimed her before this?”
“And if Ada knew the father and the father knew of the baby’s existence, why had Ada left his name off the birth certificate? And why hadn’t he married Ada when she found out she was pregnant?” Meredith added. “And…”
“And why did my great-grandfather end up marrying her after she’d had another man’s child?” David interrupted. “Wouldn’t that have been pretty outrageous in those days?”
Miss Woodbridge nodded. “Yes. I believe it would.”
Meredith added, “There must have been tremendous pressure from her family to marry. David what do you know about your great-grandmother?”
He leaned back in the sofa. “Not much. Just her name. Ada Henry. And her birthday, the date she married my great-grandfather and the day she died.”
“We need to look into her family, the Henrys. See what we can find out about them. Maybe unearthing some of Ada’s history will give us a better idea how she ended up in the circumstances she did.”
David nodded. “The records office should have her birth certificate, right? Her parents’ names will be on that. We can go back tomorrow morning.”
“In the meantime, may we start looking at your father’s documents?” Meredith asked Miss Woodbridge.
“Certainly, dear,” she agreed. “As soon as we finish our tea.”
The older lady was not to be hurried. She had Marion refill everyone’s cups and pass the plate of cookies around a second time while she asked Meredith about her recent move to her new home at St. Eanswith. Did she like the quieter surroundings? Was she enjoying the new school? Did she miss the city life? And so on. When finally, cups had been drained and questions had been satisfactorily answered, Miss Woodbridge braced herself on the arms of her chair and pushed herself to her feet. “Well, then, come with me and I’ll show you Papa’s things.”
“I’ll just clear the tea things and be on my way, Aunt Cecily,” Marion said. “I’ve left a container of stew and a fresh roll out for your supper, then.”
“Thank you, dear. I’ll see you tomorrow,” the older woman replied.
With that, Marion left them to shuffle slowly down the hallway to the library at the back of the house. Miss Woodbridge pushed open the door and ushered them into a large space entirely lined with bookcases and cabinets. She flipped a switch in the wall that lit up a series of sconces in the spaces between shelves. In the center of the room was a large desk, a library table and a pair of comfortable armchairs that must have been more recent additions to the Victorian decor. Even the walls with windows facing out onto the rear garden had low glass-fronted cabinets beneath them, housing mementos and artifacts from times gone by.
“Wow,” David remarked. “Where do we start?”
“Well,” Miss Woodbridge began. “There are news articles saved in scrapbooks. They are sorted by date. Those are on the shelves over here.” She pointed. “Papa’s personal journals are on the shelves behind his desk. All his photograph albums are on the shelves below. Which reminds me, I must return the one in the living room to its spot…”
“Don’t worry, ma’am,” David said. “I’ll get it for you.”
“Much obliged, David,” she said as he left the room. When he was out of earshot, she said, “My goodness, Meredith. He’s a fine looking man. Why, if I were forty years younger…”
Meredith laughed. “I hadn’t noticed!”
It was the older woman’s turn to laugh. “Meredith you’d have to be dead not to notice. It appears the two of you are getting along rather well?”
Meredith blushed. “Miss Woodbridge! He’s my cousin!”
She waved a hand dismissively. “Third cousin, Meredith. You’re barely related.”
The matter was dropped as David reentered the room with the photo album. “So what have you decided?” he asked, as he replaced the volume in the empty space it normally occupied.
Miss Woodbridge gestured to the scrapbooks containing the newspaper articles. “That might be a good place to start. Less tedious than reading through all of Papa’s journals. If you find an interesting bit, you can compare it to his journal entries from around the same time.”
“That’s a good idea,” Meredith said.
“I’ll leave you to it, then,” she said, making her way to the door. “If you need anything, I’ll be in the sitting room.”
“We should start at a point before Gladys was born, don’t you think?” David asked. “Maybe the year before?”
Meredith yawned. “Sure. Why not?”
David laid a hand on her arm. “Meri? Are you up for this? We don’t have to dig into this tonight. Now that we’ve decided to stay through the holiday, we don’t have to rush.”
“No, it’s ok. Let’s get a start on it,” she said. “We’ll start with 1912 and see how far we get.”
They began with the first of two scrapbooks marked 1912. David pulled the two volumes from the shelf, laid them on the library table and switched on the lamp. The news after April was dominated by the sinking of the Titanic. Mr. Woodbridge had included the major news reports of the disaster as well as reports on a few local citizens who were lost in the catastrophe and some who were affected indirectly, through the loss of family members and so forth.
By the time they had finished with the second volume, all remnants of daylight had disappeared. David replaced the the two volumes in their spaces and said, “I think that’s enough for today. Let’s head back to the inn and have a pint and a bite to eat. What do you say?”
“Sounds wonderful,” Meredith replied.
They bid goodbye to their hostess with a promise to return tomorrow after a stop at the records office. Then, bundling up in their coats, they set out for the Seafarer on foot. For a while, they walked in silence, huddled close with heads bent against the wind. David finally spoke.
“Meri,” he said, stopping her on the sidewalk. He put his hands on her arms and turned her to face him. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this. I never would have gotten this far on my own.”
She smiled up at him. “It is really is no bother. I do love research, after all. In fact I feel like we’re digging for hidden treasure.”
He leaned down and kissed her lightly on the lips. “And I feel like I’ve already found it.”
Chapter 14: Comfort Food
He shouldn’t have kissed her. David knew it the moment his lips touched hers. Meredith had stiffened and drawn a sharp breath. When he pulled back he saw the wide-eyed look of panic on her face. Foolish of him, acting on impulse that way. What the hell was he thinking? Smile, he thought. If he didn’t make a big deal of it, neither would she.
“Come on, then,” he said, brightly, reassuringly. “I hope the food at the pub is good. I’m hungry again, believe it or not. Despite Miss Woodbridge pushing an additional cookie on me.”
He was babbling, but it seemed to be working. She took his arm again as they resumed their walk. Thankfully, he didn’t have to look her in the eyes.
The pub was pleasantly crowded when they stepped in out of the wind. The publican smiled and waved them to an open spot at the end of the bar. David helped Meredith shrug out of her coat and pulled the barstool out for her before settling beside her.
“Well, you made it back in one piece,” the bartender said. “Was a bit of a wild day out there. I hope you didn’t venture out to the cliffs. Might’ve got blown out to sea.” He set coasters in front of them and asked, “Will you be wanting supper, then? The menu’s just there on the board. I can vouch for the seafood chowder. Had that for my own supper, I did. And Lottie’s bread came out just perfect today.”
“That sounds grand,” Meredith said. “And I’ll have a glass of Carlsberg.”
“Same for me,” said David. “But make it a pint.”
“Perfect. I’ll fetch your drinks, then,” their host said and wandered off.
“So,” David began. “What are you thinking?”
Meredith flushed, and David internally chided himself, knowing he’d said just the wrong thing. He quickly went on, “I thought maybe you’d come up with a likely scenario. You know, the most obvious answer is usually the right one.”
She gave a nervous laugh. “Oh, right. Of course.” She waited while her glass was set in front of her. “Well… If we assume that Marion is correct and Gladys was claimed by her biological father, then perhaps he didn’t find out about her until later on. Perhaps Ada made a deathbed confession or something. Or if he did know about the baby, something or someone prevented him from taking action. If it were just a few years later, the war could have interfered, but the timing is all wrong for that.” She paused and took a sip from her glass. “I have to admit, my mind always conjures the worst case scenarios. Too much time with Greek tragedy, I imagine.”
David raised an eyebrow. “Worst case scenarios? Like what?”
“What if the child was the result of someone, um…” She winced. “… forcing himself on Ada.”
“Oh. A rape, you mean. That would explain the ‘unknown’ father part. However, that takes us back to square one as to what became of her afterward.”
“Right,” she sighed. “So I guess there’s no use speculating until we have more information.”
“Yes, I suppose.”
The bartender set bowls of steaming chowder in front of them along with a basket of warm, brown bread and a small pot of butter.
“Tell me about teaching,” David said, breaking off a chunk of bread and buttering it. “What’s your ‘thing’ —your favorite subject matter?”
His change of subject and line of questioning had the desired effect —Meredith visibly relaxed as she warmed to her topic. He had just enough knowledge to ask pertinent questions and keep her talking through their dinner. Her enthusiasm was infectious, and David found himself swept away by the tales of the gods and their petty feuds, their constant meddling in human affairs, their torrid and unnatural passions for the daughters of men. He found himself smiling as her hands pantomimed the words as she spoke them. She was so brilliant, so beautiful, he thought. No god of any pantheon would be able to resist her. And yet… Meredith had wasted her love on a man who didn’t value her —either for her beauty or her marvelous mind.
As the evening wore on and the pub filled up, the volume of the voices rose loud enough to render conversation difficult. When Meredith tried and failed to stifle a yawn, David signaled for their bill, settled their tab and gestured to her that they make their exit. They said goodnight outside their rooms with a promise to meet up for breakfast around eight.
David took a long shower, hoping the hot water after the food and drink would help him settle down to sleep. Since coming to England, his nights had been so dream-filled that upon rising in the morning, he felt like he’d been busy all night and hadn’t rested at all. He supposed it was no surprise —he was in a different country, different time zone, chasing a family secret and getting to know a cousin he had no idea existed up till a few months prior to this.
He closed his eyes and let the heat and steam wash over him. A cousin. A beautiful, intelligent, kind and generous cousin. A woman he had felt an instant attraction to —a connection with— on that fortuitous day in April last year. He squeezed his eyes shut and let the water pelt his face. Whatever he was thinking, whatever he was feeling —and the truth was, he wasn’t really sure himself— this would not be the time for him to act on it.
He dried off and slipped into a t-shirt and boxers before crawling into bed with his laptop. After checking his work email and responding to a few important messages, he powered it down and turned out the light. It took just a few moments for him to drift off and to return to that familiar place of his dreams: the world just before the War To End All Wars.
Chapter 15: December 1912
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.
Chapter 16: The New Year
January 2, 1913
The new year was always a time of optimism. As the old year ended, things seemed especially hopeful. After his lengthy illness, Father was finally beginning to recover. However, he was still too weak to return to work. Nonetheless, we girls were happy to keep pulling the load, knowing that soon things would return to normal when Papa was back on his feet.
Things had settled down at the manor house as well. With the guests gone, I had been returned to the supervision of Mrs. Flynn, the head housekeeper. All the guest bedrooms needed to be cleaned, the sheets changed — a task that would take most, if not all day.
Despite the winter chill, Mrs. Flynn had us throw open all the windows while we cleaned so as to blow the dust out. The sheets, blankets and bedspreads were pulled from the beds and taken to the laundry. The furniture was moved and the carpets rolled up to be taken outside for beating. The curtains were unfastened and shaken out the window before being rehung. The hearths were swept and the remnants stored in the coal box. After all that, the furniture was polished, the windows and mirrors washed, the sheets replaced and the beds remade. We pushed on until all of the rooms in the guest wing were as pristine as they been before the holiday visitors had arrived.
When that was all finished, we took a short break for a bite to eat and a cup of tea before moving on to the family’s quarters. Mrs. Flynn would oversee the cleaning of Mrs. Prentice’s bedroom personally, while I began working on young Miss Catherine’s room. Catherine Prentice was the youngest of the two girls. She was fifteen years old and I think would’ve been a much nicer person if it weren’t for the bad influence of her older sister Joanna. Joanna Prentice acted as if she were heir to the throne —ordering all of the servants around like they were her personal slaves. And she was especially difficult with Nancy and me since the three of us were all the same age. She never let us forget our stations in life.
Catherine was different. When Joanna wasn’t around, she smiled and greeted us with genuine friendliness. Once, when Catherine was in bed, sick with a cold, I’d had to bring fresh linens to her room. Rather than shoo me away, she actually engaged me in conversation. I supposed she could’ve been feverish. Anyway, of the all the Prentices, I liked Catherine the best. Or at least I had until recently…
While the guests were still in residence, I’d been kept in the scullery all day, every day, for my entire shift. Hugh had come to the kitchen the day after the table collapse, without warning, to ask if there were any scones left from breakfast. Why he hadn’t rung the bell to call for one of the maids was a mystery. Instead of waiting at the doorway while Mrs.Cooper scrambled to find a spare scone and some jam and cream to accompany it, Hugh wandered into the kitchen, greeted the staff as if he came regularly for visits and eventually made his way to the sinks where Nancy and I toiled in humid misery.
“Hello, Mr. Prentice,” Nancy had said, greeting him with a ridiculous curtsy.
I wiped my brow with the sleeve of my dress and nodded soberly. “Mr. Prentice, Sir.”
He’d smiled, leaned against the doorpost and watched us for a minute until Mrs. Cooper appeared with a plate for him.
When he’d gone, Nancy giggled. “Oh, he’s a handsome one, ain’t he?”
I shrugged. “Doesn’t much matter, now does it? Seeing as he’d never be interested in the likes of us.”
I put the handsome Hugh Prentice right out of my mind until the Sunday after Christmas. December 29th.
The girls from town who came up to the big house to work, were given Sundays off. So it was that I sat with my mother and sisters in church —Papa was still too ill to attend—when Hugh Prentice sat down in the pew beside me. I drew in breath as he smiled and nodded a hello. He was by himself which was odd, but his very presence was odd in itself, for his family attended the Anglican Church and we were Presbyterians.
I tried to focus my eyes on Reverend Dawes, but I didn’t hear a word he said. At the end, as I turned to follow my family from the pew, Hugh touched my arm.
“Wait, Miss….” he said, hesitating for my mother had turned to see who had spoken.
He smiled, gave my mother a little wave and addressed her instead. “Hello, how do you do, Mrs. …?”
Mother held out her hand. “Mrs. Henry.”
Hugh looked relieved. “Mrs. Henry, yes. So nice to meet you. I am Hugh Prentice. From…” He gestured in the general direction of his home. Everyone knew who the Prentices were.
“Well, Mr. Prentice it is very nice to meet you, too.” Mother said, with a glance at me. “Do you know Ada?”
His smile widened and I realized he didn’t know my name. “Ada! Yes, yes, I have made Ada’s acquaintance.” He coughed. “Well, that is to say, I’ve seen… I’ve … I’ve…”
“Mother, I met Mr. Prentice during the holidays, when I was working in the kitchen.”
“Of course. Such a houseful of guests, I understand.”
Hugh smiled again. “Yes, indeed. All of my extended family and a few more hangers-on.”
“I’m sure,” Mother replied with a non-committal nod. “We must be going Mr. Prentice. It was a pleasure making your acquaintance.”
“Wait! Mrs. Henry…. I’d like a word with Ada, if that’s all right with you?”
Mother raised an eyebrow but gave her consent. “We will wait for you outside, dear.”
When she and my giggling sisters had made their exit, Hugh spoke. “I’m glad to finally know your name. Ada. Is it short for Adeline?”
I shook my head. “No, it’s just Ada.”
“Well that’s good. I don’t like the name Adeline.”
I blushed and looked at my shoes.
“Ada, may I walk you home?”
I thought of the humble house I shared with my family and was mortified. “I don’t think that would be a good idea. My father… my father is very ill.”
“I’ll just go as far as the door, then. Would that be alright?” he persisted.
“Alright,” I agreed, reluctantly.
We exited the church and joined my mother and sisters. “Mrs. Henry,” Hugh began. “May I walk you to your home?”
My mother’s eyes widened in surprise. “Well…” She glanced again at me. “Of course. Thank you Mr. Prentice.”
We walked silently behind Mother, Clara and Grace — the latter of whom couldn’t resist turning around to gape at us.
Though Hugh hadn’t offered me his arm —that would have been too familiar— he did walk closely beside me. When mother and the girls had got far enough ahead, he finally asked, “So, Miss Henry, how does your father make his living? He has obviously raised three lovely and intelligent young women…”
“Father is a clerk at The Royal Bank,” I reported. At least he had been. There was no guarantee he would still have his job when his illness passed.
“Really?” Hugh asked, obviously surprised. “Then what on earth are you doing toiling in the kitchen?”
“I told you. He’s been ill…”
His mouth set in a grim line. “And without work, there is no pay.”
He sighed heavily. “It isn’t fair. A man can work tirelessly, save diligently, be prudent in his habits and …” he snapped his fingers. “Just like that. He is brought to ruin.”
I didn’t say anything. He was right. And later, when I’d thought about it, that might very well have been the moment I fell in love with him.
He remained silent for the rest of the walk to my door. And when finally we had reached my home, he bade farewell to my mother and each of my sisters in turn, then taking both of my hands in his, he said seriously, “Ada, you’ve not seen the last of me.”
Now, today, as I fluffed the pillows on Miss Catherine’s bed, I heard the soft click of the door closing and turned, expecting Nancy or Mrs. Flynn. It was neither of them; it was Hugh making good on his promise.
Chapter 17: Nouveau Riche
January 2, 1913
“Hello, Ada,” Hugh said, his eyes twinkling.
I blushed. “Hello, Mr. Prentice.”
He walked over and sat on the edge of the bed. “You needn’t be so formal, Ada. Call me Hugh.”
I shrugged and continued fluffing the pillows. “All right.”
“How is your father faring?” he asked. “Any better?’
I nodded. “Yes. A little. He’s still not well enough to go back to work, I’m afraid.”
“And when he does? Will you be able to stop working here?”
I nodded again. “Papa would like me to go back to school. I’d like to train as a teacher.”
“That’s a lovely idea,” he said and was quiet for a minute.
I glanced over to see him frowning. “What is it?” I asked.
“Well, it occurred to me that most young ladies who embark upon careers don’t expect to marry…” he grinned. “I am trying to decide whether to be happy that you don’t have a young man waiting to walk you down the aisle or to worry that you have no wish to marry at all.”
I turned an even deeper shade of red, which made him laugh. “Oh, Ada. You must have realized by now that I have my eye on you. Don’t you like me just a little?”
“I can’t imagine why you’d have your eye on the likes of me,” I said keeping my eyes averted. “It wouldn’t be right.”
“Ada,” he said, standing. “You think my motives are improper.”
I shrugged again.
“I am sorry. That is not at all what I intended.” He cleared his throat. “I will admit, you caught my attention when you came up from the kitchens the day the table collapsed. I asked Mrs. Cooper about you. She told me… well, she told me you were meant for better things and that you’d only ended up working because your family had fallen on hard times. So…” he paused. “I realized that you were a young woman of good character and it made me all the more… interested in making your acquaintance.”
“Mr. Prentice,” I began, turning to face him. He looked so sincere and so very handsome that I faltered for a moment. “Mr. Prentice, you can’t seriously mean that. Surely, there is a young lady of more suitable station intended for you…” I trailed off, as he shook his head.
“No, no one,” he replied vehemently. “My father would have me marry our family into title but I want no part of it.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Ada, we are nouveau riche. My grandfather made his fortune in manufacturing 40 years ago. It was a case of having a good idea and being in the right place at the right time. So you see, we are not ‘society’ in the sense that you think. Our wealth has not allowed us entry into that oh-so exclusive world of gentry and nobility. I would be reduced to marrying a penniless debutante whose family would permit it only to gain access to a fresh influx of capital.” He turned away, irritably. “It would be no better than a business transaction.”
“I see,” I said softly.
“I’ve been away at one of the best preparatory schools in the country, probably had as much, if not more wealth at my disposal than half the other boys in my class. And yet, and yet,” he balled his hands into fists. “You’d have thought I was a poor charity case, been allowed into the school on a scholarship or the altruism of a benevolent patron. And so Ada, I’ve seen first hand, how that world works. I’ve seen it and I hate it. And I never want to be a part of it.”
“I’m sorry. That must have been very difficult for you,” I offered.
He turned back to me, offered me a wry smile. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to unload my frustrations on you. What I meant to say…. The point I was getting to… “ He moved closer, took both my hands in his and said, “When I marry, Ada. I will marry for love.”
Chapter 18: A Fine Reputation
January 2, 1913
Marry for love. Hugh’s words whirled in my mind as I walked home that evening. I had thought he was going kiss me, he’d stood so close. But like a true gentleman, he had merely lifted my hand to his lips and lightly bussed my knuckles before hurrying off to have tea with his family.
“I’ll see you soon, Ada,” he promised before leaving.
It took supreme effort to finish my work with two feet floating off the ground like they were. The thought of being noticed by, being courted by the son of the most prominent family in the town was a dizzying prospect. I never would have believed such a thing could happen to me. My first instinct, of course, was to doubt that he was sincere. Yet, nothing he’d said or done had indicated anything else. And as far as I knew, he had an excellent reputation around town. My father’s friend, Mr. Jennings might be able to tell us more. He and his sons delivered the coal from their warehouse down near the train station to all the homes in the area. I was sure Mr. Jennings had had dealings with Hugh’s father.
The gravel crunched beneath my feet as I hurried home in the frosty air. As I considered how best to proceed, it occurred to me that Mr. Jennings, in fact, might be disappointed by this turn of events. I was fairly certain he and Mrs. Jennings had hoped I would marry their older son Will. Will was twenty-one, enough older than me that, to this point, I’d only ever thought of him as an older brother. Though he was very dear to me, I couldn’t imagine ever thinking of him any other way. And truly, I’m sure he felt the same about me.
The new electric lights were coming on in the streets. The town had converted from gaslight just this year. I wondered if we’d ever be able to have them in our home. I stamped the grit from my boots before opening the door to our house. The sounds of voices drew me back to the kitchen. Mama had put Clara and Grace to work setting the table while she helped my father to his seat.
“Papa! You’re feeling better?” I asked, rushing to take his other arm.
“Yes, my dear. A bit better today.”
After getting him settled, I went to help Mama dish up our supper — a potato leek soup, with a small loaf of brown bread.
“Mama, aren’t you going to tell Ada…?” Grace said, stifling a giggle.
“Tell me what?” I asked.
Mama smiled. “We’ve had a wonderful surprise today. A lovely gift.”
“A gift? What kind of gift?” I asked.
“Someone… brought a supply of flour and sugar. Eggs and cheese. Butter and milk.”
“Oh and the candies, Mama!” Grace chimed in. “Don’t forget about the candies!”
“How wonderful!” I exclaimed. A gift like that would certainly help stretch our meager supplies. It could have only come from one source.
The Jennings family had been a tremendous help during Papa’s illness. My mother and Mrs. Jennings – Violet- were dear friends. Violet had come with food and supplies as soon as father had taken ill. I had a feeling they had been instrumental in my getting employment at the manor house, too. They had also put my sisters Clara and Grace to work for a few hours each week, filing and straightening up at Mr. Jennings’ office. So it was with absolute certainty that I said, “Well, thank goodness for friends like the Jennings.”
Grace and Clara exchanged a look and started giggling again. Papa cleared his throat and gave way to a fit of coughing. When it had subsided, Mama continued, “No dear, Mr. Hugh Prentice delivered it himself.”
As Mama passed a package wrapped in white paper over to me, I felt the heat rush to my cheeks. She said, “Go on. Open it, don’t keep us in suspense.”
I carefully slid a finger beneath one of the folds and opened the end without tearing the paper. No sense ruining a lovely wrap that could be reused. I withdrew a journal, with lined pages for writing and bound within covers of heavy woven cloth. The cloth was embroidered with gold threads which formed an intricate pattern of flowers and birds. A silk ribbon was attached to the spine for marking my place. It was a beautiful and thoughtful gift. I found a little card tucked inside the front cover. It read: Dear Ada, It pleases me to give you the means to record your memories. May they ever be as wonderful, as your friendship is to me. With warmest regards, Hugh.
I stared at the words. I couldn’t speak. Then as I looked up, first at Mama then Papa, I caught them exchanging a glance. My father began, “Ada, Mr. Prentice has asked my permission to court you.” My head swam and my heart leapt in my chest. I didn’t hear what he said after that, for the buzzing in my ears. “My dear,” he said, taking my hand. “Is this what you want?”
I swallowed hard. “I’m sorry. What did you say?”
“I told him that I wanted to know your mind on the matter before I gave my consent. And so I am asking you, my darling girl, is this what you want?”
I nodded. “Yes. Yes, I think so.”
“Are you sure, Ada?” he asked again, stifling a cough. “I do have some reservations.” He paused to have a sip of water. “I have expressed these to young Mr. Prentice. I am concerned about his family’s view of this match. That perhaps they had a young lady of the same social status in mind for him. However, Hugh indicated to me that his parents have always been open minded and could be won over in this regard. This of course, remains to be seen. Nevertheless, if you have determined in your heart that this is something you want, I am willing to give my blessing to your courtship.”
I took a deep breath and smiled. “Thank you, Papa.”
“You’re welcome, Ada. Now,” he said looking a round the table. “Let’s everyone bow their heads and we’ll thank the Lord for His gifts.”