Authors: Valerie Wood
Tags: #Fiction, #Sagas
It is the late 1850s and a tired woman holding a baby walks from Hull to one of the big houses in Anlaby, the home of the wealthy Rayners. She knocks at the door, and shoves the baby at young James Rayner. It is a Rayner child, the father was 'young Mr Rayner', and the mother is dead. Then she vanishes. The respectable shipping family of Hull are shattered. They all assume it is James's, not Gilbert's who is on the verge of an excellent marriage. No one wants to take responsibility for the baby and it is about to be put into a dreadful Dickensian type orphanage when Sammi, James's girl cousin, decides to take the baby back to her parents' home on the Holderness coast. This signals the beginning of a family furore. James is banished to London and disaster begins to beset the three branches of the Rayners, all descended from the couple in
The Hungry Tide.
A huge, many-faceted story of the three related families and the triumphs and tragedies of their lives as the whaling industry of Hull begins to decline, and the farmlands and homes continue to slip into the sea.
General sources of information.
A History of Hull
, by Edward Gillett & Kenneth A. MacMahon. (Hull University Press 1989)
Ragged London in 1861
, by John Hollingshead. (Everyman Classics 1986)
The National Railway Museum, Leeman Road, York.
The Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, 183 Euston Road, London.
My thanks to Clive Bowes, Curator, Skidby Mill, East Yorkshire, for his invaluable help into the aspects of milling;
to Chris Ketchell, Local History Unit, Park Street Centre, Hull College, for information on cholera in Hull in the nineteenth century;
and to Peter Burgess for the generous loan of his research material into the opening of Pearson Park and the Music Halls of Hull;
to my daughter Catherine for her assistance once again.
The celebrations and opening of Pearson Park, Hull, in August 1860, was an actual event, and Zachariah Pearson, the benefactor and Mayor of Hull, a real person. The dialogue between him and the fictional characters is imaginary.
It was a long walk from Hull to Anlaby. It was also an unknown country as far as the woman was concerned. A country far removed from the mean streets of Hull. She raised her head and sniffed. For a start, there were no foul smells, but for another, the road was lonely and therefore threatening. She shifted her bundle from one arm to the other. The child wasn’t heavy, how could it be, being only a few hours old? It was merely unwieldy, a cumbersome parcel that was unwanted. An anger began to envelop her, an anger which displaced the lethargy and dullness that usually swamped her mind. The anger was not directed at the babe, but at life itself for giving her this heartache, a life given an additional sorrow for the daughter she had lost.
The iron gates loomed large in front of her. On one of the pillars which held them, a name was etched into the stone: Humber Villa. This was it. This was the name she had been given when she had asked for directions to the Rayners’ house.
As she trudged up the long gravelled drive she kept her eyes straight in front, ignoring the sweep of lawn and the scent of blossom, intent only on mounting the short flight of steps and reaching the panelled front door topped by a coloured fanlight, and ringing the bell before changing her mind and tearing back to Hull, no matter what the consequences.
‘Back door if you please!’ The housekeeper was terse. It had taken her only a second to know that she wasn’t the sort of person to be admitted to the front of the house.
The woman put her foot inside, blocking the door’s closure. ‘Fetch Mr Rayner – the young ’un. I’ve got summat here belonging ’him.’
Sammi looked across at her cousin James as he stretched himself and fidgeted in the deeply buttoned chesterfield and adjusted the tapestry cushions behind his back. He gave her a wry grin and she smiled back; he was bored, she could see, and so was she.
, he had said in his letter to her.
It will be the dullest birthday ever if you don’t. I wish I was back at school with the other fellows
. So she had come, bringing with her a puppy as a birthday present, which now snored gently on her lap, and she thought that she would be happy to leave in the morning when her father’s carriage came to take her back to her home at Monkston, a village in Holderness, which sat at the edge of the sea.
James’s mother and his sister Anne were both sitting silently, busy with their sewing, as they waited for his father Isaac and his brother Gilbert to arrive home from the family firm of Masterson and Rayner, the shipping merchants, so that they might begin supper. The chime of the longcase clock in the hall broke the silence, and the sound of the front door bell made them all shuffle and rouse themselves expectantly.
‘Gilbert’s mislaid his key again,’ James remarked, and when Mary knocked and opened the drawing-room door, it was expected that she would announce that Mr Rayner and Gilbert would be down as soon as they had changed.
‘Beg pardon, ma-am.’ She bobbed her knee. Her face was slightly flushed and she fiddled nervously with the frilled bib on her white apron. ‘There’s a person at the door – a woman – she wants to see Master James.’
‘A person? What kind of a person?’ Mildred Rayner
looked up from her tapestry. ‘Who is this, James, calling at such an inconvenient hour?’
‘I’ve no idea, Mama. Did she give a name?’
The housekeeper shook her head. ‘No, sir, she just said she had something belonging to you.’
‘You must have lost something, James, your watch or pocket book.’ Anne folded up her sewing and put it on a pedestal table at her side, then glanced at her brother. ‘She probably wants a reward for finding it. Does she look the sort who would want a reward, Mary?’
Mary looked uncomfortable. ‘I wouldn’t like to say, Miss Anne. She’s not the usual kind of caller.’
‘Whatever do you mean?’ Mildred Rayner’s voice, which was quite often sharp, had an even icier edge to it. ‘Is she at the front door?’
‘Yes, ma-am. I’m afraid she is. I told her to go to ’back, but she put her foot inside so that I couldn’t shut it.’
Mrs Rayner put down her tapestry and rose to her feet, her purple supper gown rustling.
‘It’s all right, Mother,’ James cautioned her. ‘I’ll go if it’s me she wants to see, though I can’t think that I’ve lost anything.’
The firelight cast a rich glow on Sammi’s red hair as she sat beside it in a deep leather chair. ‘But you know how absent-minded you are, James.’ She gently fondled the puppy’s soft ears. ‘You put things down and then forget where you have put them. You’ve probably not missed whatever it is you’ve lost.’
He gave a rueful grimace, got up and went to the door, then he turned and with an inclination of his head gestured her to follow him. The outer front door was partly open, but not held by the offending foot, and as James opened it wider he saw the woman standing at the top of the steps with her back to him, looking out at the garden.
‘Can I help you? I’m James Rayner.’
The woman turned. Mary had given no indication
of the woman’s image, except in describing her as a
, and his eyes widened at the sight of someone in such a ragged, miserable state as the woman staring at him, with such a hopeless, resigned look upon her face.
‘You’re young Mr Rayner, are you?’ Her voice, though coarse, trembled a little.
‘Yes. I am.’ His brows creased and Sammi, standing behind him, wondered whatever could this poor wretch want with James?
The woman stepped inside uninvited and put out her arms, thrusting a bundle towards him. Instinctively he put out his hands and took it. ‘Then I’m returning what belongs to thee.’
‘What’s this? What are you giving me?’
The sitting-room door opened and his mother’s footsteps clicked on the tiled hall floor. ‘What is it, James? What’s happening?’
Her imperious tones rang out and he turned to look at her in some bewilderment. ‘I don’t know. She’s given me this.’
‘It’s a baby!’ Sammi reached to look over his arm. ‘Why is it here?’
‘It’s here, miss, because this is where it belongs.’ The woman gazed stonily at Mildred Rayner, even though it had been Sammi who had asked the question. ‘This babby belongs to ’young master here.’
James gave a short nervous laugh and made to hand back the bundle. ‘You’ve made a mistake, I’m afraid. This has nothing to do with me.’
The woman stepped back out of his reach, almost knocking over a pedestal which held a potted palm. ‘If tha’s young Mr Rayner, then it’s thine.’ Her voice took on a harsh, rough quality. ‘My daughter vowed it.’
‘Then your daughter is either very much mistaken or she’s a liar,’ Mildred Rayner cut in. ‘Why isn’t she here with her false accusations? If you or she think
you’ll get money out of us then you’re on a wasted errand.’
The woman looked at her with contempt. ‘I’m not after money, I’m just bringing ’bairn back where it belongs. Me daughter’s dead. She died giving birth. It was her first babby and, God rest her, it was her last.’ She inclined her head towards the door. ‘
said that I had to bring ’bairn here, we can’t feed ’ones we’ve got, let alone another.’
James’s face had become sheet white. ‘I don’t understand. Who is
, and why should you think it has anything to do with me?’
Sammi went to take the baby from him, and he handed it over, trance-like. She undid the thin blankets which wrapped it and a wisp of her hair from beneath her lace cap touched its face as she bent over. ‘Why! It’s such a new baby. It shouldn’t be out, it should be in a warm crib!’
The woman shook her head, a mocking twist on her lips. ‘A warm crib, miss? And what would that be? An old drawer more like, or a bit o’ damp straw!’ She turned towards James who was staring open-mouthed at her. ‘My daughter confessed to me and her da that babby was thine. She’d allus been a truthful lass and there was no need for her to lie. She’s not here to take care of it and so I’ve brought it here.’ She reached out for the doorknob, and looked James directly in the eyes. ‘Responsibility’s thine, sir.’ She opened the door and, before anyone could make a move, was gone.
It was Anne who broke the silence. She had been staring at James with her eyes wide and her hands clutched across her mouth. ‘You wicked reprobate! How could you? How could you mix with such people?’ She started to shriek at him. ‘You dirty, filthy creature, you’re as dirty as that – that – awful woman.’ She half ran towards him, her feet making pattering noises in her neat slippers, her small white fists raised. ‘I never want to speak to you again.’
Her mother moved to stop her. ‘Don’t be so ridiculous, Anne. There’s been a terrible mistake.’ She glanced round and spotted Mary hovering by the door leading down to the kitchen. ‘Quickly, run after her. Make her come back. Tell her she’s got the wrong people!’
Mary darted a glance at James and at Sammi, still holding the baby, and then back to her employer. She nodded. ‘Yes, ma-am.’ Her voice was scared and tearful, and she had a flush on her cheeks as she rushed out of the door.
James ran his fingers through his thick, dark hair and paced the small area of floor between the clutter of furniture in the sitting-room, whilst his mother and sister stared stony-faced into space, and Sammi silently sat holding the baby. Mary had run down the drive and part of the way down the road and come back, breathing heavily, unused to such exercise, and unable to find the woman.