Too many mouths… “Tol’ you she had one in the basket again.” Livvy noted the smug expression on Mrs Pengelly’s face with a frisson of irritation. She might well have guessed before Livvy had. It didn’t make the news any more welcome. Another poor mite to add to the chaos and, more to the point, another mouth to feed, and another body to clothe. Please God, let it be a boy. At least then they wouldn’t need a season and a dowry, though there was school, and university, and… oh, it was hopeless. “Do you reckon she even knows where babies come from?” Livvy sighed and pummelled the bread she was kneading with increasing vigour. “I did try to explain to her, and that there were… methods….” Gelly snorted. “Bet she took that well, from her unmarried sister-in-law.” Despite everything, Livvy let out a breath of laughter. “She turned an odd puce colour and told me never to speak of such things again.” The laugh that burst from their rotund cook wobbled her plump jowls and made her bosom heave rather alarmingly, but Livvy felt some of the tension leave her shoulders. “Oh, Gelly, whatever are we to do? She swears blind she only bought trifling little gifts for the children for Christmas, but you know what she is, and Charlie can deny her nothing.
If only she would economise, we might manage well enough, but he’s no better….” Livvy blew a lock of hair from her eyes, aware she was whinging and, worse, repeating herself. She had been singing this same hopeless song for at least four years and, no matter how hard she remonstrated, nothing ever changed. Ceci would get herself with child again and spend too much money again, and Charlie would just give his wife an adoring smile and shrug. She can’t help it, he’d say, and then he’d scold Livvy for making Ceci feel bad when she’d not been raised to live in poverty. As if Livvy had. Gelly shook her head and turned her attention back to the pie she was making. “What can you do, pet? ’Tis not your fortune, more’s the pity. They’ll run through it till it’s spent and lament once it’s gone, like it were someone else what done it.” The cook fixed her shrewd dark eyes on Livvy.
“You’d do best to get out, whilst you can.” Livvy paused, her fists sunk into the bread dough still. “I’ll not marry that… that odious creature, not for anyone.” “Don’t blame ye for it, neither, but you’d have a home that weren’t fallin’ down ’bout your ears, and bairns of your own.” “And what would happen here, I ask you? Who would see to the children if I did not? They’d be feral within a sennight if I did not make some attempt to take them in hand.” “Reckon,” Gelly agreed, nodding. Livvy harrumphed and divided the dough in two, setting each half aside to rest in a greased bowl. She washed the flour off her hands in cold water from the pump and looked out of the window at a day that was draped in fog like a blanket of wet wool. “I wonder what time Charlie will get back? I expected him yesterday, but I suppose he got talking to some old friend and forgot the time. If he comes back for Christmas, I suppose we ought to count ourselves lucky.
” “Nonsense, he’ll be back, now Missus is here. A week apart is all he’ll stand.” Livvy nodded. That was true enough. Ceci had returned from London a week earlier as she’d been too tired to stay longer, and her brother loved his wife to her bones. She could do no wrong, and no matter how time and too many babies had taken their toll on her lovely features and slender frame, to Charlie she was still the most beautiful woman that had ever lived. Livvy wondered what it felt like to be adored so thoroughly. Livvy suspected she would find such credulous adulation more than a little suffocating. Just as well it was not a problem she would ever have to endure. Before she could make herself utterly maudlin, the kitchen door burst open with a crash and the children piled in.
“Is it time?” Jane demanded, guileless blue eyes staring at Livvy, bright with expectation. “Hmmm,” Livvy said, reaching into the pocket in her skirts for the heavy gold fob watch that had been her father’s. It ought to be Charlie’s really, but Papa had left it to her, and Charlie had never complained about it. “Well, you tell me, Jane.” Jane studied the watch, her little face screwed up in concentration. “The big hand is on the six and the little hand is on the eight.” “And so?” Livvy pressed. “Half-past eight?” “Clever girl!” Jane beamed at the praise. “And we’ve had breakfast and we’re all dressed, even George.” Livvy gave the children a nod of approval, astonished to discover that George, who was not quite three years old, was indeed dressed in a rather worn skeleton suit, but it was clothes, and he was wearing them.
Quite an accomplishment. Livvy cast a critical eye over the children. Harry, at fourteen, was the eldest: all legs and arms that never seemed to be quite where he expected them. He was gangly and clumsy, like a newborn colt, and very aware of the fact he was becoming a young man. That his shirt cuffs were fraying and his cravat not properly starched were all minor miseries that wore upon him with greater force as the weeks and months passed. However, he was a goodhearted lad, and kind to his siblings. Today he carried Birdie, who was not yet a year old, her chubby arms looped about his neck. The older girls, Susan, Lydia, Rebecca and Jane, were thirteen, eleven, nine, and seven respectively. “Well then, I should say it was certainly time. Susan fetch the currants and raisins.
Lydia, you get the suet and the treacle. I shall fetch the ginger and nutmeg. Rebecca, can you measure out the flour? We shall need a pound.” Rebecca gave a stern nod, adjusted her spectacles, and went to the large flour jar. Jane bounced with impatience, waiting for her task. “Eight eggs, Jane,” Livvy said. “Take the basket, and be careful not to break them this time.” Jane gave a little squeak, grabbed a shawl and the basket, and ran out into the garden towards the hen house, letting in a blast of cold, damp air as she went. “S’pose I’d best fetch the charms, then,” Gelly said with a wink. Livvy smiled.
Despite the constant worrying that made her feel as frayed and worn as poor Harry’s cuffs, she enjoyed Christmas and all the preparations. Stir It Up Sunday had been a favourite time ever since she was a little girl and Charlie had needed to help her carefully stir the thick, dark pudding mixture from east to west, like the journey the magi had taken. The carved wooden spoon sat over the kitchen mantel all year, only coming down to be washed and oiled and used to stir the pudding. It felt like magic, or at least it had when Livvy was a child. The tradition was ancient and adding the thirteen ingredients, representing Christ and his disciples, had always seemed like alchemy, especially the charms. Yet it had been a long time since she had believed in magic, or believed in anything except trying to keep stockings darned, the chimney from smoking, and the pantry stocked. Her greatest challenge, however, was getting her brother, Viscount Boscawen, to understand that the worthless investments he’d made would never bring more than the pitiful amount that barely kept all their heads above water. Heads he kept adding to because he couldn’t keep his blasted fall buttoned for above five minutes. Livvy sucked in a deep breath and let it out again in a slow exhalation. She would not spoil this for the children, for they still felt the magic.
It was in their eyes, their blue eyes, all varying shades from the most delicate duck egg to the deep indigo of her own. Even Harry, struggling to become the young man he was destined to be, still felt it. She recognised the tremor of anticipation, of hope for a season of goodwill and roaring fires, of yule logs and gifts tied with bows, and mantels decorated with evergreen and prickly holly, stabbing soft fingers and drawing shiny drops of blood like berries. The traditions resonated through her, through the walls of the ancient house, down to the soil, connecting past and present, the long dead and the yet to be born. With a sigh, she remembered the new life Ceci would bring squalling into the world, whether or not they could afford it, and returned her attention to the Christmas pudding. By dinner time, the house was full of the perfumed spices of the pudding, lingering like an exotic taunt beside the more prosaic scent of boiled mutton and cabbage. Charlie would complain. If he arrived in time to eat, that was. He hated cabbage, yet it was cheap and grew plentifully in the kitchen garden, so he could dashed well lump it. The scrunch of carriage wheels over gravel announced her brother’s return from London at last, and Livvy hurried to the front of the house.
Charlie stepped down from the carriage and gave her his usual bright grin. “Well met, Livvy. How are my little thieves and baggages?” Livvy snorted and embraced him. “As wicked and dreadful as ever, brother dear.” “Excellent, I’m glad to hear it,” Charlie replied and then wrinkled his nose. “Cabbage? Really, Livvy? Is that any kind of meal for a man to return to?” Livvy folded her arms and returned a stern look, he gave a wistful sigh. “Ah, well. I shan’t complain, as penance for having done something you shall scold me for, I don’t doubt.” Livvy’s heart plummeted to her worn slippers, and she didn’t dare ask. She just waited, with a sick feeling swirling in her guts, to discover what ridiculous thing Charlie had spent their last shilling on.
“Oh, don’t look so Friday faced, it’s not that bad,” he said, impatient as he turned back to the carriage and swung open the door. As he seemed to indicate she ought to look inside, Livvy took a tentative step closer. The carriage was worn and musty, like everything belonging to the estate, and the air inside was sour, smelling of sweat and… there was a figure slumped in the corner, breathing heavily. Livvy took an instinctive step away. “W-Who?” she demanded. “Now, Livvy,” Charlie said, his voice uncharacteristically firm. “I’ll not have you fly into the boughs. I owe him. He saved me more times than I could count at Eton, and after too. He’s a good fellow despite… well….
” “Who, Charlie?” Livvy demanded. “Kingston.” It took a moment before Livvy realised she was standing with her mouth open. She closed it with a snap and tried to gather herself. Harcourt St John, the Earl of Kingston, or, as the scandal sheets had dubbed him, the King of Sin. “You can’t be serious,” she said. Her words were faint but trailed a wispy cloud on the frigid evening air, proof she had spoken aloud. “Deadly serious,” Charlie replied, his expression stern. “He’s sick, Livvy, and… well, I feared what might happen if I left him alone. He’ll stay with us until he’s well again, and that’s an end to it.
No argument, no discussion. I shan’t be moved on this, so don’t think to try.” Livvy knew he meant it. Mostly, Charlie was the easiest going of men, too easy, but now and then he’d dig his heels in and nothing would budge him. She could see in his eyes that this was one of those times, so she might as well save her breath, but… to have such a man in the house, for Christmas. Good heavens. “What’s wrong with him? For if he’s sick and the children—” Charlie gave a curt shake of his head. “He’s dipped too deep, that’s all. Needs to rusticate for a spell. Fresh air and good food and some time away from—” “Dissipation and vice?” Livvy suggested, her tart tone giving the words a bitter edge.
“London,” Charlie finished, glowering. Livvy snorted. As far as she could tell it amounted to the same thing. “Papa!” There followed several minutes of hugging and excited chatter as the children came out to greet their father, who dispensed the sweetmeats he’d brought with kisses and a fond words. Livvy urged them to get out of the cold evening air. “Harry, take the children inside and send Spargo out to help with the baggage, please.” “Yes, Livvy,” Harry said, as he chivvied the brood back into the house. Charlie had climbed back into the carriage and was attempting to wake his guest. “King. King, old man, we’re here.
Stir yourself, there’s a good fellow.” There came a deep groan that seemed to resonate through the walls of the carriage and on into the darkness, and Livvy shivered. “Miss Penrose?” Livvy turned to see their butler appear on the front step. He was a big man with a grizzled grey beard and a fierce demeanour, who never said a word if a grunt would suffice. “Would you help Lord Boscawen with our guest, please, Spargo? You’d best give him Harry’s bed for tonight, until we can prepare the blue room for him.” Spargo nodded and headed towards the carriage. Livvy waited, seething with frustration. Yet another mouth to feed, another load of laundry to see to, and heaven alone knew what kind of influence he would be on the children. Not a good one, that much was evident. Muttered curses had her turning to see Charlie and Spargo half-carrying the earl from the carriage.
Spargo was a strong fellow and her brother was no weakling, but they were struggling beneath his weight. In the dim light cast by the carriage lamps, Livvy got a glimpse of an arrogant profile, of the severe planes of a face that showed no trace of softness. He was barely conscious, a sheen of sweat on his skin, and she caught a furious glitter in his feverish gaze. “Get off, get off you devils, let me be,” he protested, but weakly for such a big man, and Spargo and Charlie wrestled him up the stairs. She followed them into the house as they hefted him to Harry’s bedchamber and all but threw him down on the mattress. He didn’t stir, limbs akimbo, one long leg hanging off the side of the bed. “Dead?” Spargo asked, peering over the bed at him. “Dead drunk,” Livvy said in disgust. She smelled it on him, a pungent mix of liquor and perfume and cigar smoke, of sweat and sickness. With a burst of fury, she turned on her brother.
“Well, Charlie, he’s your guest, so you deal with him, for I shan’t. I wish you joy of him.” With that, she stalked out and made sure to slam the door behind her. She was halfway down the corridor before Charlie caught up with her. “Livvy, wait.” Though the urge to keep walking and tell him to go to the devil was fierce, she forced herself to stop but didn’t turn back. “Do you remember the time I got sent home from school, beaten black and blue? The worst time.” Charlie stood behind her still, his voice grave. Livvy nodded, she could hardly forget. He’d been in a terrible state.
Charlie had been sickly as a child, and had been a scrawny, weak boy until he was almost sixteen: an undeniable temptation for bullies. He’d been a magnet for them, but that second year at Eton had been bad. “I remember.” “That was the last time it happened.” Livvy turned round to face him and saw pleading in her brother’s eyes. “King saved me, Livvy. He beat the boys who made my life a misery and told them they’d get worse if anyone laid a finger on me again. We… We were never close friends. I don’t think King has close friends, but I owe him. He didn’t have to look after me—he was older, and so popular, and I was just a snivelling little runt—but he did.
He looked out for me and made them stop. And now I shall look after him. Please, Livvy. I need your help.” Livvy cursed inwardly. This was her brother all over. He was so bloody nice you couldn’t help but forgive him for making your life impossible. She let out a breath of exasperation and stared at the ceiling for a moment. “Very well,” she said, and stalked back to Harry’s bedroom where they’d left the earl.