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Jean of Yesterday

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I never liked Hugh’s bride.  I mistrusted his choice as soon as he told me about her.

No, there’s no point in warning me off with gossip about mothers-in-law.  If he’d married a girl from the Village, I’d have been happy enough.  For that matter, if he’d married some farmer’s lass he’d met at church, it would have made sense.  But an orphan brat from a Home, who never knew her own parents’ name?  Not that I said anything, of course.  Not when he told me his heart was set on Ada; not even when he brought her home and she looked down her nose at me as a mere second wife.  I knew quite well I was Hugh’s stepmother, thank you!  But blood-kin or no, I was the only mother Hugh ever had.  I held him in my arms when he was barely a year old.  He was a son to me; and a better son no one could have asked for.  My husband Hugh—Hugh the Forester—thought me the right woman to raise his motherless son; and so I left service at the Castle and came to Lilac Cottage; and I’ve never left since.

Because of her, though, my Hugh lad was turned out of the home he was raised in, and had to go and live in one of those dreadful tenements.

I remember Castleview Farm being sold, all but the farmhouse itself.  Cows once grazed in green fields that now are brick and cobble.  The Duke could do nothing to stop it (though we all knew he wished he might) for the farm was freehold.  Peter Pillans was the owner.  By what means he got the land who can say?  The old farmer had daughters; yet his widow’s will left all to a mere farmhand.  And then there was the kitchenmaid he seduced.  She was turned off, of course, poor lass, still trusting that he’d do right by her; but he left her in her plight.  I’ve no idea what became of her.  Or her babe, for that matter.  Pillans was never a man one would trust.  His reputation was lost long before the railway came and the town was built; and that happened before he turned pawnbroker.  In the Servants’ Hall, we heard all the gossip, or at least all that found its way to the Castle.  I was one of the upstairs maids at the time, a plain girl and not lively, not the sort men chuck under the chin and talk sweet nothings to in the corner; but I was liked well by everyone in the Hall, and loved by Hugh the Forester, who was a tall straight man, for all he was thirty-five years older than I, with three daughters already off his hands when we were wed.  As for Pillans, I doubt I’ve ever met him.

I remember the town being built.  On the other hand, my husband remembered when they built the Castle itself, with a high wall that had to dip and curve round the Village, for our Duke’s father refused to rebuild the cottages yet again.  And my own father, now … he could remember the old Village, the one torn down to build model cottages for the workers on the estate.  That was before the old Duke married a wife who fancied replacing the ancient castle with a new one in the fashion of the old Queen’s Balmoral.  The new model village had a round dozen cottages, neatly whitewashed and fenced.  I was born in Violet Cottage, played with bairns from cottages named Ivy, Primrose, Fern, and Rowan, beat the bounds of the Home Park when the lambing was over, and picked bluebells in the wood.  When I was fourteen, I went to work at the Castle, like all the lasses.  That’s my idea of good service.  Nowadays girls go to work at the Shirt Factory, and there’s talk our Duke’s selling the Castle (though I don’t believe it).  Times have certainly changed.  Some blame the war; but I’ve seen too much in my life to view this as more than just the latest shift in our world.

It was Ada who nagged my Hugh into taking a job at the Railway Depot.  I heard her, over and over, when he came in for his dinner and in the evening by the fire.  Yes, and in bed, too.  Lilac Cottage was not so large, after all.  Hugh enjoyed his work and didn’t want to leave his mates.  She didn’t care.  Much of our food and firing came to all Villagers from the Home Farm:  she didn’t care about that, either—though I dare say, once they lived at Railway Terrace, she learned all too quickly the cost of food from the shops.  Most importantly, Hugh was aware that the cottages of the Village were reserved for those employed on the estate.  Yet his tongue was no less tied than the cottage.  He was never a man for words.  (Neither was my husband Hugh.)  Of course, the factor wouldn’t let them stay on at Lilac Cottage!  Yet Ada obstinately refused to see what was obvious, even when she got her way and Hugh took the railway job.  The notice came to leave, of course; and she was outraged.  But it was inevitable.  Hugh might be the son of a forester and the stepson of a former housemaid; but he was a man grown.  If he no longer worked on the estate himself, then he had no right to live in the Village.  So he was turned out.  Turned out by her, in truth, the dirty bizzom.  I know who to blame!

Ah, there’s my tongue running away with me.  I shouldn’t say that.  Dirty she wasn’t.  She couldn’t boil an egg till I taught her; she could barely even darn a sock or tack up a hem.  But she could certainly scrub floors and scour pots.  In all honesty, I have to give her that.  She never stinted the elbow grease.

On the other hand, you’ve no doubt heard the phrase “filthy lucre”, for it’s in the Bible.  Now, that’s dirt of a different sort, isn’t it?  So, yes:  now I think on it, it is fair to call her a dirty bizzom.  Ada had a love of money—money to save, I suppose, for she certainly never spent it, not that I could see.  Wee Jean was always clean; yet, with but the one bairn, Hugh should certainly have earned enough at the Railway to buy a new skirt or jumper now and then.

Ah, the one good thing Ada gave us was our Jean.  Tucked in the crook of her Da’s arm, she was, the first time I saw her.  A bonny, fair wee lassie.  She’s never grown very tall, but she’s always been healthy and lively, with a good kind heart in her.  And, if she does no better than she need do at her lessons … well, she’s quick to learn the things that matter.  I’ve no quarrel with the Adairs next door:  they’re honest, decent, hard-working folk; Annie’s a fine neighbour to an old woman; and my Hugh always got on well with Davie.  They’ve raised a fine family, and are right to be proud of them.  Still, I’ve never seen the point of book-learning for a girl.  Nor for most lads, come to that.  None of that would suit our Jean.  She’ll be leaving school soon to go into proper service as I did, I’m sure; and at the Castle, too, if I can manage a word in the right ear.  Who she’ll marry … well, that is up to her, of course.  But I’ll be sore surprised if, in a few years, I don’t see her married with a babe on the way in one of the cottages in the Village.  She may even bring her young man to share Lilac Cottage.  (That would make a deal of sense, for I’ll not live forever.)  One thing is certain:  Railway Terrace is not for the likes of Jean, any more than it was for my poor Hugh.  She doesn’t talk much about her Ma, which is as it should be:  no talking out of school, as they say; and she is her mother, after all.  Still, I can tell what she doesn’t say.

I scarcely saw Ada again; but I saw Hugh, each Sunday for years, first on his own and then with Jean.  He said little when he came.  (Well, he never did say much.)  Between the lines, I read that Ada blamed him for their having to live in Railway Terrace.  She had been, I think, proud of marrying a Villager.  Or perhaps, in some fashion, she took the man in order to marry the Village:  the sweet air, the scrubbed stoop, the apple trees and kitchen gardens, the neat cottages.  Well, you can’t have it all, my girl!

For three years, we shared a kitchen, Ada and I.  A man chooses his own wife, and his family must make the best of it.  Once a couple have made their bed, they must lie in it, side by side; and no man—or mother, either—may put them asunder.  At the time, I thought it a foul trick fate had played me.  In the end, though, the fouler trick was played by the Kaiser.  He started the war—the “Great War” they call it (as if any war is great to mothers and wives!)—that took my Hugh away from me forever, first to the front and then to the grave.

At that, I had the better of it.  It was me he wrote from the war, after all.