The war had changed Octavia. Gone was the studious, thoughtful girl who always considered the feelings of those around her, and in her place was this flippant, uncaring changeling who only thought of herself and her enjoyment. Where once books held her interest, all she wanted now was the latest party. Her mother despaired of this alteration, while her father was delighted to see his daughter adopting his brusque, no-nonsense demeanour.
Her family had come through the war relatively unscathed. Her brother, Edward, had been horribly injured, but lived to tell the tale. She’d lost many friends out there in the mud and mire of Flanders, and the village’s male population had been decimated. The men who had survived the trenches returned mere shadows of what they had been. It was as though an army of wraiths now haunted the streets of Trellogun. She hated to see them, loathed hearing talk of the war, refused to see the suffering. It was over and done. She saw no point in dwelling on the past when there was so much living to do, and so she closed her eyes, shut her mind, and fenced off her heart to it all.
She sat at the dressing table holding her face in her delicate hands as she admired her reflection in the ornate mirror. She pouted and preened, turning her head this way and that, batting her eyelashes as she practiced her poses, before giggling prettily to herself. She sighed heavily, enjoying the way the exhalation lent a dramatic quality to her face. She’d use that look tonight when she went out with the gang; the boys would be in awe, while the girls would burst with envy.
She was utterly bored and idly twiddled with the bobby pins that lay strewn across the dressing table. Where on earth was the dratted girl? If Rose didn’t come soon then she’d be late for the party! She couldn’t possibly dress her hair on her own. Octavia sighed again. She would need to have words with Rose; it wasn’t the first time she’d been tardy. She’d been Octavia’s maid for over a year now, after starting out as a parlour maid, and had always been incredibly reliable, but now she seemed full of sloth and preoccupation.
A knock at the door broke into her thoughts and she turned around, relishing the opportunity to berate her maid for being late. The door opened and there on the threshold stood her father, his height, broad shoulders and barrel-chest filling the doorway. He made his way into her bedroom, looking ridiculously out of place in this overtly feminine room. In his hand he held a small, beautifully beribboned box.
“Ah, there you are. Good, good! Saw these in the window of Simpson’s when I was in town. Thought you might like them. They’ll match your eyes, dear girl.”
She took the box with glee and removed the ribbon with little ceremony. Inside, nestled on pink tissue paper, sat two perfect bobby pins adorned with the finest sapphires. The magpie within her fell on them with relish.
“Oh, father, they’re heavenly,” and she stood to embrace him.
“Steady on, no need for histrionics! Delighted you like them. Splendid, splendid!” he blustered, as he left the room.
Now if only that damned girl would come, Octavia thought.
Several days later, Octavia needed a diversion and commandeered her father’s chauffeur to drive her in to town. After a few hours wandering aimlessly around the shops, she headed for home, filling the journey with thoughts of that evening’s dinner engagement.
“Begging your pardon, miss, but I think it best to take the long way home, rather than drive through the village.”
Annoyed at having her thoughts disturbed, she snapped at Barrow, “What on earth are your wittering on about? Take us through the village. I don’t have the time to dilly-dally on the back roads.”
He began to protest, but she would not be persuaded. Octavia was far too captivated with planning her evening ensemble that she failed to spot the concern in Barrow’s voice and face, and so it was that she found herself in the middle of a boiling pot of anger and unrest.
The villagers had taken to the streets to complain about the lack of aid they had received since returning from the war. Many of them were unable to work and were living in poverty. What had started as a relatively peaceful demonstration had turned sour, with old grudges rising to the surface. When they saw Octavia in her magnificent car adorned with the family crest the firebrands amongst the group saw red. Octavia’s father was the lord of the manor and had done little to help his tenants. The car was soon surrounded by a baying mob and Octavia began to feel genuine fear. The crowd pressed against the car, rocking it, hammering on the windows. Panic set in and she screamed at Barrow to drive on, but he refused; these were his people.
Just as she was about to give up all hope, a shout rang out. A tall, gaunt man with soft grey eyes pushed his way through the throng, calling for calm and order.
“This is not the right way to do things, my friends. Frightening a young woman who’s naught but a lass? Shame on you. This is not fit, it is not proper. Away to your homes, now, all of you.”
One by one, the crowd dispersed, with a few defiant people hollering insults as they skulked away. The man stood by the car, watching until everyone had gone. He turned back to the car and as he did so a spasm seemed to take control of him. Octavia was alarmed to see him bend over as a terrible, hacking cough clawed its way through his body. The attack seemed to last an age, but before long he straightened up, embarrassment etched heavily across his face.
“I’m awful sorry, miss,” he said, “but the cough do catch me bad sometimes. Now, you won’t get no more trouble from them, miss. They mean no harm, but tempers do rise here. It shan’t happen again.”
She thanked him quietly, still feeling shaken by the encounter. There was something familiar about this man; she was sure she had seen those soft grey eyes before.
The fracas in the village stayed with her for the next few days, but was quickly forgotten when a new drama unfolded at home. Octavia had been invited to the social occasion of the year and was determined to be the belle of the ball. Her dance card was already close to being full, such were the admirers she kept dangling. She planned to wear a brilliant blue gown and would adorn her hair with the sapphire bobby pins her father had given her. But the bobby pins were missing. She hunted high and low, flinging drawers onto the floor in her search. She rang the bell and was irritated when the maid Hilda answered it. Hilda was a useless, slovenly creature, but Octavia’s mother held a soft spot for the girl and refused to dismiss her. The only use Hilda had was that she was a bottomless pit of gossip.
“Oh, it’s you Hilda. Where’s Rose?”
The girl looked at her, an insolent smirk on her greasy face. “She’s gone, miss.”
“Gone? Explain yourself, girl.”
The girl smirked. “Like I says, miss. Rose has gone. She never come to work today, miss. I reckons I knows why.”
Octavia was in no mood for games. “Why? And if you continue to prattle on I shall send you directly to my father. I am sure that he will make you answer.”
“Well, miss, I saw her in here t’other day, and she was mooning about over there by yon dressing table. I thoughts that she was just tidying up, but then I saw her take something and put it in her pocket.” The girl stopped talking, and wiped her nose upon the sleeve of her dress. Octavia shuddered, but swallowed the urge to rebuke her.
“Go on,” she said.
“I don’t like to tell tales and gossip, miss, but I saw Rose hanging about by old Gilbert’s place yesterday and then she went in. I waited a bit and when she come out she looked fair pleased with hersel’.”
“Gilbert? Who is Gilbert?”
“He’s the pawnbroker, miss.”
Hilda lingered, a look of pure malicious delight on her face, waiting for her mistress to work out what she’d just heard. As the cogs fell into place, Octavia became enraged.
“Thank you, Hilda, you may go.”
The maid curtsied and shuffled out of the room. Octavia was seething. Had Hilda told her this a few months ago she would never have believed it, but Rose had been acting so strangely lately. How dare she? How dare the girl steal from Octavia? Hadn’t she been a good mistress? Hadn’t the family treated all the servants well?
Octavia stalked the room, pacing back and forth. This was an outrage. She snatched up her hat and coat and stormed into the village. Fire was in her stomach as she rehearsed in her head the reprimand she would give the thieving, treacherous maid. By the time she reached Rose’s cottage she was ready for war.
She hammered on the door, and was taken aback when a small child answered her. It took all of her concentration to keep the rage from her voice as she asked the infant if she could talk to Rose. The child tottered back inside the dimly lit house, letting the door swing open. She waited a moment before deciding to enter. The cottage was dark and dull, and a damp chill gave a frigid and fetid feeling to the air. She followed the sounds of life to the rear of the property and pushed the door open, finding herself in a crowded kitchen. Five young children clattered around the tiny room, while a harassed looking woman tended a pot on the smoking stove. In a tattered chair by the paltry fire sat a gaunt man, a blood-flecked handkerchief clutched in his hand.
She was startled by a noise in the corridor behind her and turned to see Rose hurrying towards the kitchen.
“I’m back and I’ve got some medicine,” she called, before stopping in front of Octavia.
“I think we need to have a little talk, don’t you?”
“Yes miss, please can I just give this first,” she said, gesturing to the package she held.
Octavia nodded and followed the maid into the kitchen, watching as she handed a bottle to the man in the chair. He noticed Octavia and struggled to stand up, but as he did so his frail body was wracked by a dreadful coughing fit. Recognition suddenly hit Octavia; of course, he was the man with the soft grey eyes who had rescued her from that unpleasantness in the village.
“It’s you,” she breathed.
When the coughing fit had subsided and Rose settled him in the chair again, Octavia introduced herself, feeling suddenly awkward at having intruded on this family.
“We know who you are, miss,” the man said. “We’re that pleased that you’ve taken on our Rose. She’s always talking about you, miss. I think she quite admires you.”
Rose hushed the man, a growing blush spreading across her face. “Hush, Da, she don’t need to know that.”
Da, thought Octavia, looking at Rose as though she’d never seen her before. What a fool she had been! Of course, those soft grey eyes she’d noticed during the mini riot had looked so familiar because she’d been looking at them for the last year or more.
“I need a quiet word with your daughter, if you can spare Rose for just a few minutes.”
Rose gestured for Octavia to follow her and she led her into a dank little yard at the rear of the dwelling. Before Octavia could say anything, the girl took a deep breath and spoke.
“I know why you’re here, miss. I knew that Hilda would tell. But let me explain and then you can do whatever you wish with me. My Da in there, he isn’t well and he’s getting worse. Mustard gas got him. T’was only a little but it’s enough to burn his lungs. Doctor says he can help, but it will cost a pretty penny and we just haven’t got the money. He was so ill t’other night and I was tidying your bedroom and saw those pretty bobbies of yours. I don’t know what came over me, but I took ’em. I know it was wrong, but I just thought of how they could solve all our problems. But when I took them to old Gilbert I just couldn’t do it and I was going to bring ’em back. I don’t know what came over me. I am so dreadful sorry, miss, and you’ve been so good to me. I’m a wicked, ungrateful brat and if you wants to take me to the law then I’ll go with you. I won’t put up a fuss. Just please let me tell my Ma and Da first.”
Time stood still for Octavia. Little by little, the past came rushing to her, memories of those she had lost in the war came to greet her. She stared at this fragile girl in front of her, a girl who was doing her very best to care for her family, and to look after her dying father. No wonder Rose had been so preoccupied lately. Octavia felt ashamed; she had ignored so much since the war, turning her back on the people who needed her. She had swanned around drinking champagne and prattling on about pretty frocks and shoes, while her people were suffering and living in poverty. This poor girl, her Rose, had been driven to desperate measures and Octavia had been oblivious. Something in Octavia began to break and she started to cry for Rose, for the men left behind in the mud, for the men who had come home. Bit by bit the ice around her heart began to melt. Rose was startled. This was not the reaction she had expected.
Octavia rummaged in her handbag, producing a dainty lace handkerchief and drying her eyes.
“Come on, then. Please go and fetch your coat and hat. We don’t have much time.”
The young girl did as she was bid, thinking to ask to talk to her parents, but feeling afraid to anger Octavia further.
They hurried along the street towards the constable’s house, until Octavia turned in the opposite direction. Rose began to protest, but Octavia merely smiled at her.
“Here we are,” she said.
Rose was confused. “But this is Gilbert’s. This is the pawnbroker, miss. But I told you I didn’t sell them.”
“I know and that is where you went wrong. Come on, let’s see how much these bobby pins are worth. And then after that, we’ll go back to your home and you can introduce me properly to your parents. Heaven knows what they must think of me, barging in without a by-your-leave.”
“I don’t understand, miss,” Rose said, tears clouding her soft grey eyes.
“I want to help you, Rose. So, let’s get these things sold and then you can help your father. Dear me, I don’t even know his name!”
Gratitude shone from the young girl’s eyes. “His name’s Robert, miss, Robert Pearce. Some of them round here call me Bobby’s Girl, miss.”
“Well, then Bobby’s Girl, let’s get your dad better, shall we?”