Actions

Work Header

The Greatest of These

Work Text:

And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

King James Bible: 1 Corinthians 13

‘Don’t dawdle, Green!’

Nurse Clouter’s voice sounded even harsher and more scoursome than usual, Millie thought. She bent over her boot, retying the bow of the lace with great care, getting the halves exactly even. In fact, if it hadn’t been Nurse Clouter – who told everyone only babies were afraid of the dark as she snapped the gas off at night – with anyone but Nurse Clouter, Millie would have thought her voice sounded scared.

Millie stood up carefully and considered her two feet in their new boots. ‘It’s Greenly.’ She looked up into an outraged O of a mouth. ‘My name is Greenly, not Green. Millie Saint Greenly.’ She had only discovered the middle part recently herself, when The Master of the Institute had summoned her to The Office, where he had told her that she was eleven years old and when a child reached eleven years old the Guardians, being good and generous people, for which she must be very grateful, arranged for that child to earn her own living in Gainful Employment. And she – Millie Saint Greenly – was to be a scullery maid, and what did she think of that, eh?

Millie hadn’t really known what she thought of it, the question catching her out sudden like, but she had said she was Very Grateful because that was always a safe reply and The Master had seemed pleased. And so she had been given two yards of cotton print and one yard of canvas, all at The Parish’s expense, for which she must be grateful, and told to make a new dress and two new aprons and three caps to go away and be a scullery maid in.

And while she had worked, Millie had brooded on her new discovered name. She would have liked to ask if being a Saint meant she would one day be with her Mother. Her Mother was an Angel in Heaven Singing With God’s Heavenly Choir, which her friend Sarah Boggs had assured her was a very good thing. She knew that if you were very lucky then one day an Angel might come down and take you up to Heaven, and she had rather hoped that being a Saint might help if the Angel knew about it, but Sarah Boggs had gone away three months before to be a tweeny, so she had nobody to ask.

‘Oh you dawdling little slut!’ Nurse Clouter pinched her arm and then pinched it again on exactly the same spot which she always managed to do even if you moved your arm away really quickly. ‘Dirty, idle, lying, ungrateful, little slut. And don’t you dawdle. Do you want to be late? Late for them’s as good and kind enough to give the likes of you Gainful Employment. Oh the wicked ingratitude of it! Just you come along of me right now!’

She grabbed Millie’s hand and dragged her along the street, presumably because Millie had now proved herself too untrustworthy to walk under her own locomotion.

Millie wondered how she could be considered a liar for mentioning her correct name instead of agreeing to the false one, but she also knew that she must be in deep disgrace, because to be called Ungrateful was the worst epithet there was in the Marylebone Institute for Destitute and Foundling Children. She knew that she should have hung her head and accepted Nurse Clouter’s pinches as her just due, and fixed her eyes humbly on her boots as they scuffed through the dirt and dust of the streets.

Except that the boots were new – not new to the world, perhaps, but certainly new to Millie, and black and shiny, with eight eyelet holes on each side rather than the mere two of the regulation boots in the Marylebone Institute for Destitute and Foundling Children.

Besides, the streets weren’t dirty at all. They seemed quite fresh really, as if someone had worked very hard with a broom in front of every house to push the dust into the little piles in the gutter which a man in a brown coat was shovelling up neatly into a small hand-barrow. The leaves on the fine young trees that marched along the streets were a lovely transparent sort of green, and the sky was blue, blue, blue, and her feet weren’t shuffling at all. In fact she couldn’t seem to stop them skipping sometimes. And when the man in the brown coat winked at her as they walked past she felt a little smile bubbling up inside her so she had to clamp her lips very tight shut to stop from laughing.

They paused at the corner, as they had paused at all of the corners for several streets, while Nurse Clouter stood and stared at the street sign. It said Queen’s Street, which Millie didn’t think was very interesting, but Nurse Clouter seemed interested in all the street signs and liked to stand for some time looking at each one, her lips moving slowly as if she were saying a prayer.

Millie thought privately that a street sign was a very silly thing to pray to. And just because The Chaplain often did mention A Sign From Heaven when he was talking in Chapel, didn’t mean you should look at all the street signs just in case they were ones from Heaven. Besides, Nurse Clouter was supposed to be Church of England. Perhaps she was secretly like Billy Mawkins, who had been Baptist until Overlooker Adams had given him a buffet on the side of the head and told him he was Church of England the same as everybody else and it was Ungrateful to want to be anything else. Millie looked at Nurse Clouter thoughtfully and wondered if she really wanted to be Church of Street Signs, but had kept it to herself so as not to be thought Ungrateful.

Nurse Clouter had stopped praying now though and was looking up Queen’s Street with a very disapproving frown.

‘That can’t be right.’

Millie was a little unclear about the difference between Right and Wrong, being altogether much more certain about the importance of being humble and hardworking and above all Grateful, but when she looked along it Queen’s Street looked quite all right to her. The houses were very tall and very white, with smart iron railings along the front painted a deep dark green, and the doors, which were quite the widest doors Millie had ever seen, were also a nice green, with each one having a shiny brass knob in the centre and a shiny brass letterbox under it – so if you imagined the top two panels of the door were big eyes then they all looked like faces. Big solemn faces looking down at her.

This can’t be Queen’s Street,’ Nurse Clouter said.

‘It says Queen’s Street on the street sign,’ Millie pointed out. And then she blinked when Nurse Clouter screamed at her.

‘Well it can’t be! I don’t care what it says on no stupid sign. It can’t be Queen’s Street and there’s a fact you nasty, dirty little ungrateful slut.’

‘Why not?’ Millie asked.

‘Because nobody in a street like this would want a girl like you.’ And she released Millie’s arm to give her another pinch.

Millie flinched and gave a little gasp of pain inside her own head, where it wouldn’t show, and kept her face very blank for Nurse Clouter. ‘Perhaps we could just go and ask?’

It was, she knew, a very audacious thing to say. It might even count as Forward, which was almost as bad as Ungrateful in the lexicon of the Marylebone Institute for Destitute and Foundling Children – but the thought of coming all this way in her new shoes and her new dress and her new bonnet on the nice clean streets past all the beautiful white houses with their solemn faces – all that and then to just tamely turn around and go back because it was probably the wrong Queen’s Street, well that was unbearable.

She kept her face very blank, and tried to look not at all Forward, and waited.

‘Well…’ Nurse Clouter cast her glance up the street again. ‘Well…’

‘Please, Nurse Carter, which number is it?’ Millie said very quickly, and she sent up a hasty prayer to God, if he was listening and not too busy, that it be one of the closer ones.

‘Well, it was number eight, but— Here! You come back right this minute, Green!’

But Millie didn’t care. She knew an eight when she saw one, and she could see one now, like a generous, fat, friendly person beaming down at her above the big solemn door, and she ran up the black and white tiled steps, which had quite the prettiest pattern she had ever seen, and pulled on the round buttony brass knob that was helpfully labelled ‘pull’.

And then she stood and waited with her back defiantly to Nurse Clouter.

‘Green,’ Nurse Carter hissed. ‘Green, you come back down this minute.’ And yes, she really did sound scared. ‘Quick! You mustn’t go up them steps. Not ever them steps for the likes of us.’

And still Millie kept her back to Nurse Clouter, because after all, her name was not Green, it was Millie Saint Greenly, and she waited, waited for something to happen. She was eleven years old, and she suddenly felt as if she had been waiting all her life in the Marylebone Institute for Destitute and Foundling Children for this thing to happen.

And then the door opened, and an Angel smiled down upon her.


Darla blinked and grimaced at the sunlight, that was really far too bright when she was already feeling half asleep, and looked down, and then down some more, at a very small girl who was standing on her doorstep gazing up at her with her mouth open.

‘Hello.’

Below the girl was a woman, shriveled and thin and almost as small as the girl herself, who was clinging to the final railing of the area as if scared to let it go, and staring up the steps to the front door as if she had expected an ogress to appear.

‘Hello.’

The woman did not participate in this exchange.

‘I’m Millie Greenly,’ the little girl said and she bobbed down and up awkwardly.

‘Are you indeed,’ Darla said, and she took another step back into the house for safety’s sake, away from the sun.

‘Yes, ma’am, I am. And please may I come and work here? It probably is the wrong Queen’s Street, but I would work ever so hard and be ever so grateful.’

The woman found her voice at last, a creaking, squeaky sort of voice as she clung to the railing still. ‘Oh I am so sorry, ma’am, so very sorry. She is a dreadful, forward, ungrateful girl and she just wouldn’t listen. I told her not to go up them steps but she wouldn’t listen.’

‘Wouldn’t she?’ Darla looked down at the girl with a slightly tinged interest. ‘Well, no, perhaps not, but then why should she listen to you? If she wants to come and work here then that is what she wants and you telling her not to come up the steps is not very helpful, now is it.’ It was a silly thing to say – a ridiculous thing to say – but the day was far too bright and Darla far too sleepy to bother with all the niceties.

The woman made a sort of clucking chicken sound, and the little girl tore her very big brown eyes off Darla’s face to turn round and look down at her. The woman was hardly worth looking at, the only points of interest being the red neck and angry red tip of her nose against the pale unhealthy skin, but it was worth seeing presumably, because the little girl turned back to Darla with a beaming smile on her face.

‘But… but… but… this is the wrong Queen’s Street, ma’am. She can’t work in this Queen’s Street, ma’am! Nobody in this here street would want the likes of her.’

‘And why not? What is wrong with her?’

‘Her? Nobody here wants her, ma’am – she’s workhouse.’

The little girl gasped, her fists clenching and a look of unutterable woe spreading across her face. ‘I’m not. I’m not, ma’am. Please, I’m not. I’m from the Marylebone Institute for Destitute and Foundling Children, not from the workhouse.’

The woman sneered up at her, her face gurning and grimacing between spite and anger. ‘That is the workhouse, you stupid slut. It’s the bit of the workhouse where they put nasty little babies like you because you’re too nasty to have in the proper workhouse.’

‘And you work there, do you?’ Darla asked. ‘I can see you have a true vocation.’

The woman looked puzzled at this, as if expecting an insult but unsure of exactly what had been given. ‘Yes, ma’am,’ she said carefully.

‘I see. And do you have a name?’

‘Y-yes, ma’am. Nurse Carter, ma’am.’

‘I see.’ She looked back at the little girl who had tears spilling down her face now. Many children cried unattractively. They sniveled and things dripped from their noses and the whole business was far less pleasant than Angelus made out. But this one managed to look engaging even in her tears, which merely rolled down her cheeks in glistening lines that left the delicate tang of salt on the light spring air. She wasn’t a pretty girl, not even her mother, who had presumably never seen her, would have considered her pretty, but she had a sweetly naïve yet melancholy air of self-reliance that Darla found most unusual.

‘Well, in that case, I think you had better come inside Millicent Greenly.’

The little girl gave a sort of gasp, her eyes going round with wonder again, and she whispered ‘Really, ma’am?’

‘Yes, of course, because this most certainly is the correct Queen’s Street and I am the lady who is expecting you.’ And she bestowed her kindest and most overwhelming smile and stepped aside, gesturing for the little girl to enter.

‘But… but… but…’ the woman clucked. And then she came up the steps all in a rush and pushed in after the little girl.


She should have made them go down the backstairs of course, but there had been such a perverse pleasure in seeing the look of delighted hope in the little girl’s face – and shock on the woman’s – that she had gone against her better sense.

Hope and shock, those two most delicious of emotions. Like sugar and salt for the feast.

The little girl was walking almost on tiptoe in her excitement, her wide, wide brown eyes travelling around from the rather middle-class patterned tiles on the floor to the vulgarly gaudy covings of the ceiling.

‘Do you like the house, Millicent?’

‘Oh yes, ma’am. I think it’s the most beutifulest thing I’ve ever seen, ma’am.’ The little girl took a gulpy sort of breath and lifted her chin. ‘it’s like… it’s like a church, ma’am.’

Darla laughed. ‘Yes, well I suppose it is rather like a church in some ways – we have Mr Pugin to thank for that.’

The little girl’s eyes widened even further, but she did not dare to ask who Mr Pugin might be. Or perhaps she already knew – people could surprise you sometimes.

‘Do you know who Mr Pugin is, Millicent?’

The little girl shook her head, a few mousy curls escaping from her cap as she looked up at Darla with those lovely big eyes.

‘Or you, Nurse Carter?’ Darla called back over her shoulder. ‘Do you know?’

‘Er…’

‘No, quite. And yet you claim to be better than this girl. I can’t think why – do you not read the newspapers?’

There was a stiff snap in the woman’s voice as she said ‘No, ma’am, I don’ts have time for them sorts of things.’

‘No, I suppose you can’t, can you. In here, Millicent. If you are a good girl, you will be allowed to polish this floor and then I will tell you all about Mr Pugin.’

The little girl was hugging herself as she skipped through the door into the morning room, which Darla had decided was an appropriate place for the lady of the house to interview a prospective servant.

She settled herself gracefully behind the escritoire that she and Amelia had spent some time positioning just so.

‘Do sit down, Millicent.’ Darla indicated the plain wooden chair that had been set opposite and the little girl perched herself on the edge of it, her feet kicking at the bottom bar.

The woman looked around, but the only other chairs in the room were set around the walls, comfortable padded ones of the best quality. The woman considered the smallest and plainest for a moment, then opted to stand just behind the little girl.

‘Now, Millicent, I must determine if you are a good girl and if you are suited to come and work for me.’

The little girl nodded and leaned forward slightly.

‘Would you like to work for me?’

‘Oh yes, ma’am, yes please. I would be ever so grateful.’

‘Yes, well… yes.’ Darla fixed her smile a little more brightly. ‘But would you enjoy it?’

The little legs stopped kicking and she clamped her lips tight on her breath as if afraid to let it escape.

The woman made a sort of strangled snort, like a horse sneezing. ‘She won’t say no, ma’am. She wouldn’t dare.’

And the little girl hastily nodded her head, many times, as if determined to leave absolutely no doubt. ‘I would enjoy it, ma’am. Oh ma’am, I would enjoy it so much.’

‘Well that is good, Millicent, but you aren’t a slave you know – it must be your own free choice. Is it your choice?’

Again the little head bobbed up and down six or seven rapid times. ‘Oh yes, ma’am.’

Darla sat back in her chair, frowning as if a little uncertain. ‘What would happen to her, Nurse Carter, if she did not come here?’

She watched the woman’s scraped thin cheeks puff out and then the inevitable gasp of foetid air. ‘She’d have to go back, ma’am. And who knows what they’d do with her then. I suppose they mights find someone as would have her. They mights.’

‘And if they don’t?’

The little girl’s head swung around to regard the woman anxiously.

The puff of air again. ‘Well she can’t stay in the h’orphanage for ever, can she? Not a great big girl like her.’

The great brown eyes swung back to Darla.

‘But she is so very small. Surely some lighter work…?’

‘She’s stronger than she looks, ma’am,’ the woman said hastily.

Darla looked doubtful again while the little girl sat up very straight and put her shoulders back, pushing out her flat chest. ‘I can lift a whole bucket of coal, ma’am, and scrub floors and peel potatoes and pound the laundry for… for hours.’

Darla looked anxious and waited a little longer, then judged the moment to be right and shook her head. ‘I’m not sure… I’m not sure…’ She bent towards the little girl, creasing her face with concern. ‘Do you not have any relations to look after you?’

The little girl looked distraught while the woman snapped ‘She’s a h’orphan, ma’am, she ain’t got nobody.’

‘And you make it your business to know, do you? You know every little detail about your charges – you read the reports perhaps?’

The woman’s nostrils flared and Darla returned her gaze to the little girl.

‘You can read and write, I suppose?’

‘Oh yes, ma’am, and do sums. I… I could write letters for you if you needed.’

Darla smiled despite herself. ‘How very accomplished. You are clearly a good girl who works hard at her lessons.’ Darla gave a significant look at the woman, who was scowling, worrying at her teeth so her nose snubbed up like a pig’s. Darla quickly looked away.

‘But to return to this matter of your relations, Millicent, surely, even if your parents are… Surely a grandparent? An aunt or uncle? Older brother or sister?

The little girl shook her head, her face a picture of woe – which Darla suspected was not so much pity for her own condition, something she must after all be well used to, but concern that having no friends or relations somehow disqualified her for the post.

‘She’s a foundling, ma’am.’ The woman sounded worried too now. ‘Is that a problem, ma’am?’

‘No, no, not at all.’ Quite the contrary. ‘But surely there must be somebody? Not even a neighbour?’

Again the little girl shook her head.

‘Abandoned at the workhouse door, ma’am. Wrapped in a newspaper. She’s got nobody to care for her in the whole world.’ The woman put on a peculiar leer. ‘Cept for me, ma’am.’ Perhaps the leer was intended to imply kindly concern.

Darla sat back in her chair. ‘And who are you, exactly? Where is Nurse Pertwee? I have always dealt with her before and found the girls she chose most satisfactory.’

‘Left, ma’am. Upped and gone. Married the coalman last week and bug— That is to say, they has removed to Devonshire, ma’am.’

‘Oh, I see, well that is… very nice for her, I’m sure. Devon is a lovely county.’

‘I wouldn’t know, ma’am.’

‘No, I dare say you wouldn’t. But she was a friend of yours, was she?’

‘I… I…’

‘So if I wrote to her she would recommend you?’ Darla stared at the woman intently. ‘She would approve of you carrying on her particular duties?’

‘I… I…’ The woman stuck her chin out. ‘I’m sure she would, ma’am.’

Darla prevented herself from sighing and stood up, wrapping her arms around herself and going to stand by the window. Past the drapes and the thick lace curtains what the humans would doubtless consider a perfect spring day was going on. Some sort of bird was pecking about in the patch of overgrown weeds referred to as a lawn, watched from the roof of the coal shed by a sleek tabby cat.

The whole business was too tiresome for words. The girl would clearly do, but now she was going to have to check out the woman as well. She would have to make delicate enquiries as to what size of bribe the woman expected for selecting a well-trained, meek and obedient workhouse orphan with no questions asked. Plus lay some careful groundwork to imply it was something like white slavery or a well run brothel to allay suspicion, all the while maintaining a public face that she was just a lady wanting a good girl for a scullery maid. And there was always the risk the wretched woman really was too stupid to look beneath the surface. She might even do something awkward like demand the girl write weekly letters to tell her friends how she was getting along or suggest the Overseer of the Poor visit to check up on her. What should have been a routinely simple piece of business was going to take three times as long with a great deal more risk involved.

The cat was creeping forward on the roof, its rump quivering with tension as it edged closer.

‘Do you like playing Grandmother’s Footsteps?’ Darla asked.

There was a stir of consternation behind her.

‘The game, Grandmother’s Footsteps – do you ever play it?’

‘We… we play it sometimes, ma’am. In the schoolyard.’

The cat’s tail was twitching, its head moving fractionally from side to side as it judged the distance.

‘The children play it sometimes – they don’t call it that, of course, but it is the same game. It is meant to test patience, I believe, and stalking skills, naturally.’

This remark was met by silence.

The cat sprang, the bird rearing up from between its paws in a clatter of splayed wings, leaving the animal staring forlornly after it, a single feather drifting down to settle between its paws.

‘I’ve always found it very tedious,’ Darla said, turning around.

‘I won’t ever play it again, ma’am,’ Millie said quickly.

‘No, well, never mind about that. Now, Nurse Carter, answer me truthfully, please – what will you in fact do if I say I won’t have her? Take her back to the orphanage? Or abandon her in the street? Or take her to the nearest brothel and sell her for a decent profit?’

‘I… I… Ma’am!’ There was the inevitable spluttering and shocked expressions from the wretched woman. But there was also a sly expression flickering across her face, as if now the idea had been mentioned she was thinking it a good one.

Millie looked up at the woman curiously, perhaps wondering what the eventual answer would be, but she was still smiling and kicking her legs, and clearly knew that Darla wouldn’t let anything of the sort happen to her.

Darla gave Millie a tiny smile and a wink, and Millie giggled and hugged herself while the woman continued to splutter out her absolute innocence and virtue.

‘Yes, yes, of course you are an absolute paragon of perfect behaviour – but you are too stupid to have even considered the possibility and yet you expect me to do business with you?’

‘I… I… Right! That’s it! I ain’t staying here any longer to be insulted and made fun of and laughed at.’

‘Really?’ Darla reached out and pulled the bell. ‘What a shame. But what about her?’

The woman looked at Millie as if she was something nasty squashed into the curb. ‘Well, is you having her or ain’t you?’

‘Oh well naturally I shall have her, you silly woman. I just wondered what would happen if I didn’t.’

Millie was hugging herself even tighter, the little legs kicking back and forth happily against the bottom rung of the chair

‘Well you have her then. I’m a respectable woman, I am. I doesn’t have to put up with this sort of thing.’ The woman began storming for the door, and then seemed to recollect herself and turned to Millie.

‘You be a good girl, you hear. I don’t wants to hear no bad reports of you.’

‘Oh of course you won’t,’ Darla said.

There was a soft rap at the door.

The woman gave Darla a sharp look and strode back to Millie, where she planted a kiss on what was probably meant to be Millie’s cheek, but Millie jerked away and it sort of ran wetly down her ear and onto her collar.

The woman sniffed and headed for the door again. Behind her, Millie rubbed at her ear furiously, a look of revulsion on her face.

‘Dear, dear,’ Darla said. ‘What a bad temper.’

‘I ain’t staying here to be insulted.’

The door swung towards her and the woman jerked back comically, a blob of spit flying from her mouth as she snorted in surprise.

Amelia paused in the doorway to look at the woman with a sneer of contempt, then turned to Darla and bobbed a lovely little curtsey like a perfectly trained lady’s maid. ‘You rang, ma’am? I was waiting in the kitchen to answer the back door like you asked.’

‘Ah, yes, Amelia, thank you. But I had to let them in the front door – the woman made a mistake.’

Amelia shot the woman a suitable look of contempt.

‘Still, why shouldn’t a good girl come in the front door? And this is a very good girl – her name is Millicent.’

The woman was trying to get out, weaving from side to side, but Amelia stayed stolidly in the doorway, blocking the way. She looked politely at Millie. ‘Indeed, ma’am. A pleasure to have her, I’m sure.’

‘Indeed. And this thing is Nurse Carter, who believes she can take over from Nurse Pertwee and deliver the orphans from now on.’

‘Indeed, ma’am.’

‘Thing!’ The woman turned round to yell at Darla. ‘Did you just call me a thing?!’

‘Oh do be quiet, you tedious animal.’

The woman shut her mouth with a snap, her face white with shock.

Millie had her hands to her mouth now, little bubbly sounds of delight spluttering from behind her fingers.

‘That’s better. You want to be paid, don’t you? I will deal with you in a minute. Very well, Amelia, you may take Millicent. Show her down to the kitchen.’

‘Very good, ma’am.’ Amelia held out her hand for Millie with a reassuring smile. ‘Don’t be frightened now.’

‘Oh I’m not frightened!’ Millie jumped down off her chair at once and curtsied charmingly, just like Amelia had. ‘Thank you so much, ma’am. Oh thank you so much. I’m going to really enjoy being here.’

‘Yes, well…’ Darla glanced at the woman who was standing with her arms wrapped around herself, rocking a little and muttering. ‘You run along now, and do exactly as Amelia says. I’m just going to have a talk with Nurse Carter.’

‘Yes, ma’am!’ Millie bobbed another curtsy and trotted over to Amelia, slipping her little hand into Amelia’s big one.

‘Thank you, Amelia, that will be all. No – wait!’

Amelia looked at her enquiringly, Millie peering back past the door post beside her.

‘Who is on duty today?’

‘Mr Harold, ma’am.’

‘Harold, good, well tell him…’ Darla sniffed and clicked her fingers at the woman, indicating the chair Millie had vacated. ‘You – sit.’

The woman thumped herself down.

Amelia waited politely, Millie’s little hand still in her own.

‘Tell Harold to be quick. I want it done and bottled as soon as possible, no delays.’

Amelia frowned. ‘But surely, ma’am, a little girl like this – the master—?’

‘Never you mind about the master. Do as I say, please.’

Amelia shrugged. ‘Whatever you say, ma’am.’ She bobbed a final curtsey and turned to lead Millie away.

‘Who’s Mr Harold?’ Millie whispered.

‘He’s the Head Minion.’

‘Is that like a butler?’

‘Yes, but much better.’

Darla listened as their footsteps faded away on the soft carpets and then there was the sound of the door down to the kitchen opening and closing again behind them, gently.

She looked at the woman, sitting bolt upright in the chair with lips pursed.

‘Ten shillings,’ the woman said. ‘That’s what Nurse Pertwee said it was – ten shillings for a girl delivered and no questions asked.’

‘Yes, well…’ Darla sat down at her desk and opened the drawer. ‘Nurse Pertwee knew how to be discrete and was paid accordingly.’ She took out the knife and the long bone needle. ‘Yes, I was very happy to do business with her.’ She gestured across the room. ‘There is a mackintosh square on that seat, just lay it on the carpet, will you. Where was I? Oh yes – Nurse Pertwee. A sensible business-woman. You, on the other hand, will not do – you will not do at all. You are what? A workhouse girl yourself? Grew up there and couldn’t be found a post with that bad temper of yours so you just stayed on and became a petty tyrant to those unfortunate enough to find themselves under your “care”.’

She dropped her fangs.

‘You are no better than Millie – and just like her, nobody will miss you.’


An hour or so later, she rang the bell again. Amelia knocked and entered, glancing down at the mess.

‘Tell the men to clear this up, will you. I’m going to bed.’

‘Yes, ma’am.’ Amelia stood aside to let her past but – being Amelia – with a slight frown at the stain on her dress. Darla was too tired to care about her disapproval. She headed for the stairs, already imagining herself slipping between the cool, clean sheets. But then at the turn of the landing she hesitated.

‘Amelia, one more thing…’

Amelia sighed, but her expression remained civil as she looked up at Darla.

‘Yes, ma’am?’

‘Is…’ And then she quickly changed her mind. ‘There is a cat in the garden. Have someone fetch it in, please – I don’t want it killing the birds.’

Amelia gave her a look, a very pointed look, such as only someone who had been with her as long as Amelia had might give her. And then she bobbed her perfect little curtsey.

‘Yes, ma’am, whatever you say.’