Authors: Janet Tanner
“Yes,” she said sharply. He was different, of course, and she knew the reason. But she had no intention of going into that now. “He tells me he wants to teach, Mr Davies, and I think that may be your doing. But I haven't any idea how he should set about it, and thats why I'm here.”
Beneath his stiff-fronted shirt, William Davies' chest swelled with pride. The things he had said hadn't been in vain, then. The seeds he had sown were putting out roots â¦
“I think we should have a talk, Mrs Hall,” he suggested. “ If you'd care to come through into my house, we could talk it over with a cup of tea in our hand.”
“That's kind of you, Mr Davies, but I'd rather talk here if it's all the same to you,” Charlotte returned.
William Davies flushed slightly. “Of course â¦ I only thought â¦ but never mind.” His busy hands restacked the slates yet again as he spoke, then he looked at her over the rim of his spectacles.
“I don't know if Jack has told you, but I've had this over with him. I tried to talk him into continuing with his education, and suggested I should see you and his father. But he was adamant I should do nothing of the sort.”
“Why?” Charlotte asked, but she already knew the answer.
“He thought the expense would be beyond you,” he told her.
She drew herself up, lifting her chin proudly.
“He had no business saying that. It's not for him at his age to judge what we can and can't do.”
Again William Davies flushed slightly. It had been wrong of him, perhaps, to let the matter rest with Jack, but the boy had been adamant, and he had not wanted to embarrass the family.
“You're right, of course,” he agreed “I should have taken no notice. But for a boy of his age, he's very mature, and I tend, foolishly, to feel he's older than he is. However, you're here now. And if we can do something for him, pulling together, it would please me no end.”
“What would it entail?” Charlotte asked.
The schoolmaster settled himself against the edge of his desk.
“There are various ways he could go about it,” he told her, more comfortable now that he was on familiar ground. “But in Jack's case, I think it might be best if he stayed on here for a time. He'd be what's called a monitor, helping me with the general discipline, passing out pencils and collecting slates, and I might even get him to hear the younger ones readâthat sort of thing. In return, I'd give him extra lessons. Then, later on, we could get him into one of the good schools as a pupil/teacher. A boy with a brain like his shouldn't be difficult to place, and he'd most likely live in with the headmaster. He might even be paid a small wage. I'd have to arrange the details later, of course, but I reckon that by the time he's seventeen, we could have made an uncertificated teacher of him. What do you say, Mrs Hall?”
He paused expectantly, but it was a moment before Charlotte could reply. The jumble of facts and unfamiliar titles were spinning round in her head, but one kept coming to the fore, and it made her glow with pride.
“Well, Mrs Hall?” William Davies pressed her, and she nodded, returning abruptly to reality.
“I think it's best to leave the details to you, Mr Davies. You know far more about these things than we do. As for the money, don't let that stop you. We've always managed so far, and I expect we'll manage again. Now, I shall have to talk this over with my husband, of course, but you can take it from me, Jack'll be back with you next year.”
“Oh, Mrs Hall, you've no idea how delighted I am!” Unable to contain himself, William Davies reached over and gripped her hand, pumping it vigorously, and the warmth of his enthusiasm remained with Charlotte even when she had left him and set out for home.
In the kitchen she found Jack cutting thick slices of bread and dripping for Amy. He questioned her with his eyes and she nodded, beaming.
“Mr Davies says you'll do, Jack. I'll tell you all about it later when we're on our own.”
It was only after she had finished explaining to him, however, that she realized she was as yet only half-way to arranging things. If it was to be feasible, extra money was needed. Already the wages that James and the older boys earned barely went round, and they had all been looking forward to Jack providing a little extra. If he stayed on at school, not only would there be no more money coming in, there would be additional expense tooâbooks, decent clothes, a hundred and one things she was sure she hadn't even thought of yet. And very soon the baby would be another mouth to feed.
But Charlotte was determined not to let that stand in her way. If money was needed, then she would earn it. And she knew exactly where, and how.
They needed a cleaning woman at the Rectory. The one who âdid for them' had given notice, or so she had heard. It would be hard work, caring for her own home as well, but she didn't mind that, and anything would be better than taking in washing, like Ada Clements next door. Although she knew she was in no condition to go out looking for work, Charlotte felt sure she could persuade the Rector that she would be a suitable applicant for the job. If there were difficulties, she had a trump card, and she would not be afraid to play it. To keep Jack at school, there were no lengths to which she was not prepared to go.
The next morning, however, as she walked down the hill to the Rectory, it was all she could do to keep from turning back. All night, she had been thinking of the interview ahead, and dreading it more and more. She did not even like the Archers very much, she told herself. She never had done. They were a pompous and hypocritical pair, the Rector kindly enough, but full of his own self-importance and a good deal too fond of the sound of his own voice, and Caroline, his wife, the sort who might very well gloat in secret over the troubles of her husband's parishioners. If only there were some other way!
The gates were closed on the Great Western Railway line for an approaching tram. As Charlotte stood on the wide pavement waiting for it to pass, she felt the same choking fear as she had felt watching the coal cart a few days ago, and her determination grew again. However difficult the interview, it would be worth it if she could make sure Jack, at least, was never jolted home that way.
When at last the train had filled its water tank and puffed away, she crossed the lines and walked up the pavement to the rectory gates, going through them and down the drive to the grey stone house.
Caroline Archer herself answered her ring, a tall, gaunt woman, who looked as if she thought enjoyment was the same as sin. Her eyes narrowed when she saw Charlotte, and her aquiline nose twitched in annoyance. “Good day, Mrs Hall, isn't it?”
Charlotte nodded. “ That's right. I hear you need some help in the house, Mrs Archer. I've come to offer my services.”
An expression of distaste flickered across Caroline Archer's face. “My dear Mrs Hall, you don't appear in any condition â¦”
Charlotte raised her chin. “ I've never let it stop me working yet, and it won't stop me now. I can still scrub and polish and make a better job of it than some of these young flibbertigibbets who call themselves housemaids. I admit there'll be a couple of weeks when I shall be laid up, but after that I could come right back.”
“And what about the baby?”
“I could easy enough get a neighbour to look after the baby for the few hours I was here.”
The Rector's wife smoothed her skirt. “ It doesn't sound a very satisfactory arrangement to me, Mrs Hall. In any case, we have had several other applicants who are really most suitable.”
“You mean the job has gone?” Charlotte asked sharply.
“We haven't yet decided, but I'm sure when we do â¦”
“Then let me see the Rector,” Charlotte interrupted her. “ I'd like to tell him myself just why I want the job.”
“Mrs Hall, I usually attend to the engagement of staff.”
“Just the same, I'd like to see the Rector.”
Caroline Archer compressed her narrow lips, “Very well. Come this way, Mrs Hall. But I assure you, the Rector will tell you exactly what I've told, you.”
She led the way, her gaunt body rigid with annoyance beneath the stiff violet silk of her dress, and Charlotte followed.
But in spite of her composed manner, her mind was churning. Supposing she had been wrong about Mr Archer? Supposing when she told him what she had to say, he simply ordered her to get out? It had hardly seemed a possibility before; now it seemed almost a certainty.
In the study, the Reverend Archer was poring over notes for his Sunday sermon. When the two women entered, he straightened his tall, spare frame, grateful for the interruption. The sermon had not been going very well.
“Mrs Hall!” he said with a surprised but welcoming smile. “What brings you here?”
“Mrs Hall has offered to come and clean for us,” Caroline said swiftly. “I told her that in her condition I didn't think it wise, but she insisted on seeing you.”
The Rector buried his hands in his pockets, smiling apologetically. “I'm grateful to you, Mrs Hall. But I do think on this occasion I agree with my wifeâ¦”
“I'd appreciate a word with you alone, Rector,” Charlotte said, the hard edge in her voice taking them both by surprise. They exchanged glances, and Caroline moved reluctantly to the door.
Charlotte waited until she had gone, then turned to face the Rector.
“I have a reason for wanting this job,” she said directly. “ Our Jack is going to stay on at school and train to be a teacher, and money is short. If I don't earn some, I don't know how we'll manage.”
Andrew Archer regarded her sadly.
“An admirable sentiment, Mrs Hall. But everyone has their own reason for wanting to earn a little extra money. I can't possibly accommodate you all. Your other boys have jobs, don't they, with the colliery companies? And Jack â¦”
“Jack is different,” she said fiercely.
“I'm sure you think so, Mrs Hall, butâ¦”
“I know so.”
Something in her tone made him look at her curiously.
“Jack isn't made to be a miner,” she went on. “ He never was.”
The Rector raised his hands helplessly. “ I'm sorry, Mrs Hall, I don't understand. In mining families, a son follows in his father's footsteps. That's the way it's always been.”
She swallowed painfully at the lump that had risen in her throat. A scent of roses, wafting in through the Rectory window, was evoking too clearly that other, long-gone summer's day. She felt again the potent drug of grief mingled with desire and saw once more the young man with the earnest face and the gentle hands who had seemed to her to belong to another world, where despair and hopelessness were only meaningless words.
The memory lasted unsullied for only a moment before she added to it a hundred moreâchoking guilt and regret, anxiety akin to panic, a body that swelled with the passing months, a child born into a family in which he had no place. Although she had tried to hide it even from herself, from the time he had begun to walk and talk she had known he was different, gentler, more vulnerable, and now she could keep her secret no longer. Now, for his sake, she had to break the silence of the years.
“James is not his father,” she said.
She sensed the Rector's withdrawal, saw the embarrassment shutter his face.
“I â¦ don't seeâ¦” he began after a moment.
“His father was clever,” she cut in. “ When I knew him he was a student. Jack takes after him. In every way. Don't you see, Rector, I can't let him waste all that. And that's the reason I've come to you.”
“But why to me?” the Rector asked.
She raised her head, her eyes, clear and blue, giving no hint of the turmoil she was feeling.
“Because his father was John,” she said.
For a moment the Rector stood immobile, his features so frozen by shock that they might have been carved out of alabaster.
“John? My nephew?” he repeated. Then, with a swift laugh: “Mrs Hall, you can't expect me to believe this!”
“It's the truth,” she said quietly. “ I wish it weren't, but it is, all the same. If you doubt it, you only have to look at Jack.”
“But he was just a boy!” the Rector protested. “You must have been a grown woman!”
She did not reply, and with an effort he gathered himself together.
“I shall write to John at once. As you know, he went to Australia â¦”
For the first time her composure wavered.
“Why does he have to know?” she asked sharply. “ What good would that do? I'm not asking for anything except the chance to work. I don't want charity. Only to give him the chance in life he deserves, that's all.”
“But Mrs Hall â¦” the Rector began helplessly. Then, as a new thought struck him: “Does your husband know about this?”
“No.” She drew herself up, feeling naked suddenly, and afraid. “No one knows, and I'll thank you to tell no one, Rector. What I've said to you, I've said in confidence. And you're a man of God. That means you're honour bound to keep it, doesn't it?”
He nodded. “ If you say so, Mrs Hall. But I can't accept what you say. You must see that â¦”
“Oh, for the Lord's sake!” Suddenly his patronizing disbelief was more than she could bear. Her face contorted with the years of hidden pain, and her voice rose, shrill and entreating. “Don't you think I'd sell my soul if I could change it? Don't you think I've wished every moment of his life that he was James's son like the others? But he's not. He's not. And it's no good trying to pretend he is â¦”
She broke off, covering her mouth with her trembling hands. But still the ragged sound of her breathing escaped, rasping into the stunned silence.
At last the Rector spoke, his voice a pitiful parody of normality. “If I were to offer you the job, when could you begin?”