Martha is waiting for me at the door when I get home.
“Hurry!” She nudges me toward the stairs. “Miss Claire and Miss Poppy have come a-calling.”
In less than a minute, she strips me out of my dirty gown and slips a new cotton dress that smells of lavender and lemon over my head. She brushes my hair and twists it deftly into a tight bun. Martha might not be as skillful as Elle, but she definitely is efficient.
I clatter down the stairs but slow down when I reach the drawing room. Already, Bianca is sipping tea while Claire and Poppy are removing their hats and gloves. I drop a hasty curtsy and apologize in my best ladylike tone.
“Good afternoon, ladies,” I say. “How lovely it is to see you today.”
“I apologize that I delayed returning your call,” Claire says, though she doesn’t really look sorry. “But I was detained by a sudden invitation.”
Bianca dips her scone in her black tea. She says nothing, but I know she’s curious. I expect Poppy to blurt out what had kept Claire, but I notice she appears to be in low spirits. Though she wears a polite smile, it doesn’t reach her eyes.
I wonder what went wrong. Did she quarrel with Mr. Davenport? Maybe he cheated on her? I really hope not. He and Poppy look so cute together.
“It appears that you have recently dismissed a maid from your service,” Claire says. “A young, attractive girl.”
Bianca presses her lips together. “I assume you mean Elle. Has she sought employment at your place?”
“Oh no,” Claire says, a smirk lurking in her eyes. “However, I have heard that she was offered a position at Henry’s house.”
A crumb falls on Bianca’s saucer. “Henry? You are referring to the duke?”
“Precisely. I just had tea with him yesterday. Do not appear surprised, Bianca, it was a request by the duchess. Apparently His Grace is smitten with your former maid. Apparently he met her when he treated her sick brother, and then developed a strong attraction.”
Bianca shoots me a sharp glance, full of incredulity. All this time I was supposed to seduce the duke, yet I had never told her that he might be interested in Elle. Oops.
“Can you imagine that? It is no secret that Henry is prone to falling in love, but this time a lowly servant? Really, I cannot reiterate enough how appalling it is that our society is deviating from the established precedent. Titles bought and sold. People behaving out of their place. Rules broken, ignored, abolished. Next thing you know, Poppy will be marrying below her station.”
Poppy chokes on her sandwich. Claire gives her an exasperated look—one that is remarkably similar to Bianca’s whenever “my sister” is appalled by my gauche behavior.
“Um…Poppy?” I pour her a glass of water. “Would you like to come up to my room? There is this…er…dress pattern I want to show you.”
It’s a lame excuse, but instinct tells me she needs somebody to talk to. Besides, I’m dying to get away from Bianca and Claire.
Poppy looks relieved as well. I steer her toward my room and do what I usually did when my best friend, Tara, came to my house with a guy problem. I ask Martha to bring us two cups of hot chocolate—chocolate always does wonders for a girl. Then I kick off my shoes and snuggle on the bed. It’s time for a girl’s talk.
Poppy looks a bit surprised when I tell her to follow my example, but she does it. We sit side-by-side, knees drawn up to the chin, the fire roaring in the grate, and sip hot chocolate. Despite it being summer already, it has been raining today and the room is still chilly and damp. Several minutes later, she starts to speak.
“Mr. Davenport...you saw us at the flower show.”
“Yes.” My breath catches in my throat. “He didn’t cheat on you, did he?”
“Oh no,” Poppy quickly says. “But it might have been easier if he had. Oh Kat, I thought I had found the man for me. Even if he’s annoying and always challenges me and isn’t the best-looking of men...I can’t bloody do without him.” Her hand flies to her mouth. “Pretend you didn’t hear me swear.”
“That’s okay,” I assure her. “Sometimes I swear as well, if it makes you feel better.”
Poppy giggles, but soon returns to her sober expression. “He proposed to me, Kat. He said he couldn’t imagine a life without me either. Sounds dreadfully fast, but Papa and Mama got engaged after meeting each other for only three days. But I KNOW he’s the only person I wish to marry, Kat. No one else will do.”
Ooh. The power of insta-love.
“For a few days, I thought I was the happiest girl alive,” Poppy went on. “But Aunt Fremont says my parents would never approve of him. She says affection is all very well being imagined, like a romantic fancy, but marriage should be based on practical purposes in order to last longer.”
“Yeah, I imagine she’d say that,” I say dryly. Lady Fremont is unlikely to approve of a love match.
Poppy looks ready to cry. “Oh Kat, what can I do? I don’t want to marry someone else. Auntie tried to introduce me to Algernon McVean, but I can’t stand him.”
We giggle. Still, it isn’t going to solve things. I lean back in the pillows and take a sip of chocolate. Life is so complicated, what with the stagnant state of my mission, the rejected eight-hour bill, and now Poppy’s problem.
“Don’t you have any suitors, Kat?” Poppy asks. “I mean, anyone who you also find acceptable? I thought you looked real pretty at the flower show. That rose you had pinned to your head was striking.”
“You know Bianca always attracts all the attention,” I laugh. Still, an image of Edward caressing my cheek in the dimly lit stairway pops up in my mind. I push him out of my head and grope wildly for something else to say. “Have you thought of eloping?”
Poppy’s eyes bulge. Thankfully she has just put down her mug, or she would have spilled chocolate on the sheets. “Katriona Bradshaw! I thought you…you were a lady.”
“Er…” I gesture to the novels on the shelves. “I read a lot. Maybe more than I should. But seriously, if you can’t gain your parents’ approval, isn’t there a place…” I rack my brains—what was that name again? “A place called Ruby Red, up in the north in Lochden, where the rules for getting married aren’t as strict?”
“Oh my.” Poppy straightens her back, her eyes bright. “You must be joking, Kat. I couldn’t do that. Mother would skin me alive and Father would hang me from the roof.”
“Your parents are that scary?”
Poppy laughs and shakes her head. “I’m exaggerating. They do have volcanic tempers, but their anger rarely lasts long. It’s like a thunderstorm—lasts for a short time and then sunshine is out.”
“So what is the worst that could happen, if you aren’t afraid of risking your parents’ wrath?” I ask.
“Father might not allow me a dowry. Jonathan says once he gains a few days off, he’ll accompany me home and try to convince Father that although he may not earn much, he comes from a respectable family.” Poppy chuckles. “If we elope, the local paper would finally gain some readers. Sensational material always does.”
“True.” Sounds like our school paper. It would take a super-hot guy like Gabriel to boost the readership. “Bad news always travels fast. Um, not that your eloping is bad news, well, if you do decide to elope…”
Martha comes in. “Pardon me, ladies, but Miss Claire is waiting downstairs for Miss Poppy.”
“Oh dear.” Poppy reaches for her shoes. “I’ll have to go.”
“I hope it’ll work out for you, Poppy,” I say, giving her hand a squeeze. “Sorry I can’t do much for you, but if you do decide to elope, I’ll be happy to stand witness for you.”
Poppy laughs and squeezes my hand back.
When she’s gone, I sink onto the bed and gaze at the ceiling. So many difficulties the people have to face in this world. Then I imagine Poppy eloping. Considering both she and Davenport are pretty fearless (on the croquet lawn anyway), if they are so certain of marrying, who is to say no?
At least that would be easier to take care of than the eight-hour bill.
Then I sit up. Local paper…sensational news…bad news travels fast.
An idea brews in my mind. A daring, possibly stupid plan that Edward, Mr. Wellesley, Ponytail Godfrey and the others would never approve, but I want to give it a try.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Krev calls. He’s flying in the air, invisible to everyone except me.
“No,” I answer, “but I don’t know what else I can do.”
Actually, I’m beginning to have my doubts now. After I waylaid a few people and asked directions to Andrew McVean’s cotton factory, I now find myself in a dirty, dank, gloomy area. Heavy plumes of smoke waft from chimneys and tiny wisps of cotton that escaped from the factories float in the murky air, which reeks of horse manure and coal fires. A huge wagon rattles by, loaded with bricks and hay. The building looms ahead—the original color of the bricks barely visible beneath the blackening and soot. Some of the workers loitering nearby already cast me strange looks.
“Hello, sweetheart!” A man with icky teeth calls. “Lost your way? I can help you!”
I shake my head and pull my shawl around me tighter. If Krev weren’t with me, I wouldn’t have the courage to venture any farther.
My idea is simple. I’ll write a story about the factory children and have it printed and distributed. Mr. Wellesley will help, I’m sure of it. I know he owns a printing press, so he could produce those petitions. I don’t have any experience interviewing, but that’s okay. None of the writers on the school paper have interviewed child laborers who look straight out from the 19th century.
Krev wasn’t interested in the plan, but I bullied him into coming with me. If anything happens to me while I’m in the book, the king will miss his show. From what Krev has told me lately, the king and his subjects have been avidly watching my progress just as Mom follows her Sunday soaps.
Since the huge iron door is closed and I don’t dare walk up and knock, I skirt around the building. My boots squelch through a muddy area—it just rained a while earlier. I also hear the humming and whirling of machines inside. I think there’s a man shouting, but no one replies (or I can’t hear anyone replying), and soon it’s only the humming and whirling.
“Girlie!” Krev zooms toward me. “This way. I’ve found a smaller door that you could try.”
I hike up my skirts and splash through the mud. Sorry, Martha. She gave me a scolding the other day for soiling my clothes. Without washing machines, they have to schedule a washing day to do laundry by hand. Martha hates laundry day more than anything else, and considering the amount of work she already has to do, you can guess how tedious and laborious the process is.
Anyway, I reach this part of the factory where I’ve found the small brown door Krev mentioned. It’s slightly ajar. A barrel sits near the door, catching rain water that drips from the roof. I peer at the door from a corner, then shrink back and lean against the wall. I can’t do this. I can’t open that door, stride into the factory, and demand an interview. Besides, the man who’s shouting inside must be supervising the children. Molly had mentioned she’d get a whipping if she was too late in returning to the factory.
“Well?” Krev hovers just inches above my head. “Are you going in or not?”
The small door opens. Is flung open, actually. A stout man with a long scar on his arm emerges, dragging a young boy by the ear. He tosses the boy on the ground and glares down at him.
“Third time today!” he snarls. “Do you want to continue working here or not, boy?”
The boy lies in a crumpled heap on the ground. I think he nods, but I can’t be sure, as the boy has his back to me.
“Well, then you’d do well to stay awake!” The man leans down, grabs the boy by his nape, and drags him to the barrel. I am frozen in horror when the man dunks the boy’s upper torso into the barrel, ignoring the boy’s flailing arms, like he’s drowning the child.
I grip my umbrella, my hands shaking. Before I step out, the man has yanked the boy back up, who coughs and splutters, his hair completely flattened from being soaked. Water drips down his front, reaching his shoes. Or a bunch of rags that look like shoes.
The man punctuates every word with a violent shake. I’ve got to do something. In a whisper, I ask Krev if he could do a bit of magic for me.
“No answer? Or do you want another dunking?”
This time the boy shakes his head quickly.
“Then get your lazy arse inside.” The man releases the boy with a violent push. “Don’t let me catch you falling asleep again, or it’ll be twenty lashes from the belt.”
NOW. I dart forward, my umbrella in hand, Krev floating ahead. His presence puts me slightly more at ease.
“Okay, Kat,” I mutter to myself. “It’s now or never.”