BLOOMSBURY, LONDON, ENGLAND – WINTER OF 1854
EARLY AFTERNOON, THE FOUNDLING HOSPITAL
Whilst every last foundling had been compassionately raised by the matrons and school masters to practice the noble art of goodwill toward ‘men’ by dutifully reciting biblical verses every Sunday in the chapel like parrots waiting for a jam-covered biscuit, sometimes, the only way to get said biscuit was to beat it out of a boy’s hand.
Since she was six, Miss Felicity Annabelle Sanders had been delivering extensive bruises to any boy who snuck his crooked nose from the boys’ refectory to the girls’ refectory in an effort to steal food off their plates. ’Twas a well-known fact she and the rest of the girls already received half of the food rations the boys did.
Their developing muscles and better brains be dashed.
In Felicity’s mind, there was a reason why Eve ate the apple before Adam did and it had nothing to do with temptation or a snake. Eve simply grew tired of being last in everything and had to get to that fruit before Adam did what he always did and ate it all.
With ink stains smeared all over her hands from constantly writing essays like ‘I, FELICITY ANNABELLE SANDERS, AM A GENTEEL CHILD OF GOD AND NOT A CHILD OF THE DEVIL’, she trudged through the vast halls in between her training for domestic servitude, always ready to take on any boy who thought he was more entitled due to his ‘esteemed’ sex. She had made such a stellar reputation for herself the boys always scattered the moment they saw her coming.
Of course…the bloody nose she’d given to twelve-year-old John Murdock not even an hour earlier wasn’t something she was proud of given she was now sixteen as opposed to six. But the depraved moron had carved a hole into one of the planks of the outhouses and had been gleefully watching girls hitch up their skirts for weeks. So she took that head and that nose and delivered swift justice by dashing it against the hole she’d caught him peering through.
Only now she was awaiting punishment. Life was so unfair.
Standing with her chin jutted out and her ink-stained hands squarely set at the sides of her drugget uniform, Felicity grudgingly waited to be called forward with any and all charges. She didn’t predict a particularly good outcome. Not after the entire administrative staff had assembled within the office of the head governor.
There was so little space in the wood-paneled room, all of the matrons, schoolmasters, and stewards had to cram themselves close to every wall in an effort to fit. One of the matrons choked out an anguished sob, dabbing her now moist eyes with a linen handkerchief she had pulled from the sleeve of her over-starched gown. She waved away others who tried to console her and turned toward the wall.
Felicity inwardly shrank. Old Mrs. Moxley, the toughest of the three matrons, was crying.
Matrons only cried when something bad was about to happen.
Felicity swung back to the desk of Mr. Wilson in a panic. “Whatever John Murdock told you is a lie,” she blurted. “He carved a hole the size of a shilling into the wall of the outhouse and was watching all of us girls lift our skirts!”
“Yes, yes, Miss Sanders. I am well aware.” Mr. Wilson, the main governor of the hospital, adjusted his morning coat and leaned toward the massive desk set between them. His silvering mustache was molded and poised with flakes of wax hardening its tips. He turned a sizable stack of documents toward himself with thick fingers.
She sensed he was weighing the punishment he would give.
Perusing the parchments one last time, Mr. Wilson picked up the pen residing in the ink well and offered in a much friendlier tone, “In my humble opinion, Mr. Murdock had earned himself a new nose. I thank you for bringing his vile behavior to my attention and wish to personally offer you a very merry and happy Christmas.”
Felicity blinked. Since when did Mr. Wilson brush aside an opportunity to demonstrate the discipline he so firmly believed in? Be it Christmas in ten days or not.
She scanned the crowded room of school masters and sniffling matrons and was about to ask what was amiss when they all gathered around and excitedly shook her hand, offering countless pleasantries and boisterous, gushing commentaries about the vast world and the happiness it would bring. The blur of those handshakes, words, and forehead kisses ended when the door closed.
Felicity and the main governor were the only ones to remain in the office.
It was as if everyone were saying goodbye. What was this? “Sir?”
Mr. Wilson paused. “Ah. Do forgive me, Miss Sanders. I’ve been incredibly distracted going over the last of your paperwork. I have some exciting news. Your uncle, Mr. Barrington, had sent over the lawyer we were expecting to finalize your removal from our institution. I wasn’t permitted to share any of the details until it was formally approved by the administration. That approval happened this morning. You are a foundling no more. Congratulations and please remove your tag.”
She gaped, her heart pounding as her fingers grazed the small leaden tag embossed with her number of 95428. It had been on a wool string around her neck for sixteen years. “I’m being claimed?”
“Yes. By your uncle.” Mr. Wilson smiled and tapped the documents set before him. “By signing these affidavits, Mr. Barrington will become your sole guardian until you come of age. ’Tis glorious news to be claimed by a relative barely days before Christmas, is it not?”
It had been too long for it be glorious. Why did this relative feel the need to show up now? Her hand dropped away from her tag. Something about this uncle didn’t sniff right. “Are you certain this man is related to me?”
Mr. Wilson eyed her, his smile fading to a mere line. “More than certain. Mr. Barrington has provided extensive legal documentation proving he is, in fact, related to your mother.”
What if it had been forged? “I wouldn’t trust it, Mr. Wilson. We both know what a man off the street wants with a girl of sixteen. I’ve been whistled at by more than enough deviants through the locked gates to know. That one coarse-looking man had even tried to climb over said gate and grab me. Or don’t you remember?”
He lowered his chin, his mustache twitching. “Those men have no place in this conversation and were dealt with accordingly. I wish to assure you, Mr. Barrington is your uncle by blood and by name. While I would agree his protection comes late, it wasn’t by any means intentional. Fifteen years ago, your mother’s carriage was struck by an omnibus. She was pronounced dead upon impact, and given she never told anyone about the pregnancy, her older brother was unaware of your existence until a few weeks ago.”
Oh, now this really didn’t sniff right. “I’m confused. If she was struck dead fifteen years ago, and no one knew of her pregnancy, how did he know?”
“Your uncle will explain. Simply know your mother had used the guise of taking the waters to hide her pregnancy from her family when it occurred and you were deposited into our care shortly after. Our documents indicate she had repeatedly asked to see you prior to her passing, but our policies are such that we permit no contact unless a mother is prepared to collect that child.”
Ah, yes. The good old ‘I love my child but must take the waters’ routine. It was such an unoriginal excuse used by so many unwed mothers, one would think fathers would be on to their daughters by now. “I’m not convinced I want anything to do with these people.”
“I’m afraid Mr. Barrington has legal rights. As such, you will gather all belongings from your assigned basket and be ready to leave tomorrow morning. I wish to extend the deepest of condolences regarding your mother and have no doubt it was a very difficult decision she had made when she originally left you in our care.”
Her mother had conveniently escaped living with the social stigma of having a child out of wedlock. While Felicity? She was going to be branded illegitimate for life by everyone. Even those who didn’t know her. For a child left at the gates of the hospital was a communal outcast.
While the matrons had done their best to be the parents she never had, a sliver of her heart had always felt wronged knowing she had a mother who had never been upstanding enough to face the world and fight. The woman had left Felicity to do that for herself. “Whilst kind, sir, I need no condolences. She was no mother to me.”
“I understand. At this time, you may remove your tag and set it onto the desk.”
Felicity gripped the wool string. It was who she was. It was who she would always be. 95428. Whether she stayed here or went out into the world, she was still a number. “Might I keep it, sir?”
He paused. “A very strange request, but yes. You may.” Mr. Wilson sat in his oversized leather chair and scratched his name at the bottom of each document with the metal nib of the pen. He turned the parchments toward her, one by one, and extended the pen for her to take. “Please sign on the appointed spaces using your mother’s surname. There are twelve pages for you to sign.”
Feeling cornered by the amount of paperwork alone, she lingered.
He lowered the pen. “Please understand your uncle is most insistent and will take this hospital to the King’s Bench should you deny the request. Is that what you want? To turn this into a legal battle our administration cannot afford?”
It was this or…domestic service as a laundry maid for life.She didn’t know what was worse. Dirty laundry or more dirty laundry.
Grudgingly taking the pen from his hand, Felicity positioned the documents closer toward herself. “Am I permitted to see the token that was left to me by my mother?”
“Yes, of course. Consider yourself blessed. Rarely does a foundling ever get to this phase of administration.” Mr. Wilson folded open the file marked 95428 and unwrapped a sealed billet. He removed a small brass key attached to a lace ribbon from the yellowing parchment and slid it across the desk toward her. “It was attached to your clothing when you were delivered to the gate in 1838.”
She lowered her chin to it, noting the peculiar size of the key. It was incredibly small. No doubt to match the heart of her mother and its lack of magnitude. What sort of woman abandoned a newborn? Not the sort she would ever respect or want to know.
But it didn’t make her any less curious.
Setting the pen back into the inkwell, Felicity dragged her fingers across the mahogany desk and picked up the tiny brass key. Her skin pricked against the freezing metal that sent a spark of whispering chills to her bones, causing her breath to hitch. Marigold Hadden, who had slept in the assigned bed beside her since they were old enough to toddle, had always told her that the prickling of one’s skin was a ghostly message from those departed.
Felicity quickly set the key back onto the desk with a clack and swiped her hands against her pinafore. The brass of that key had been so bizarrely cold, she could have sworn it had been encased in ice for years. “Is there any reason as to why it was left with me?”
Mr. Wilson perused the documents with furrowed brows. “I’m afraid there is no mention of its significance, however, your uncle is convinced it belongs to an old trunk she kept in the attic.”
Not good. It meant unfinished business. He slid the key back toward her.
“’Tis yours to keep. I have no doubt you wish to cradle the memory of your mother.”
She shook her head and kept shaking it. “Oh, no, sir. I have no need for memories. None. No trunks for me, thank you.” She lowered her voice in an effort to get across her point. “Ghosts attach themselves to unfinished business.”
He stared. “Ghosts?”
“Oh, yes, sir. Didn’t you know? They pass through the veil only on business and seek to influence our ways. Mr. Charles Dickens proved that much in his stories, and Marigold has told me quite a bit about them, as well. And whilst I’ve never seen one…I don’t want to. Who knows what my mother kept in that trunk.” She waggled a forefinger toward the key on the desk. “My father’s no-good bones might very well be in that trunk. Not that I’d blame her. If a man did to me what was done to my mother, he’d be dead and buried in a trunk, too.”
Mr. Wilson rolled his eyes. “Miss Hadden has erased the last of your rational mind.”
“Rational minds don’t exist in the realm of the dead, Mr. Wilson. Their society isn’t by any means like ours. They abide by the moon and the stars. We abide by men who know nothing.”
“Take the key, Miss Sanders.”
“Absolutely not and no. The past is the past for a reason. It doesn’t belong in my future.”
Sliding it back to her in agitation, he tonelessly said, “If you insist on being impertinent, give the key to your uncle, but you are not leaving it here. Your file is being closed and will be moved to the archives later today. Which means it will be tossed into a scrap bin to reduce paperwork.”
Oh, now, that wasn’t fair. She couldn’t have the only thing her mother had left for her tossed. She wasn’t that unfeeling.
Eyeing the key, Felicity wrapped her pinafore around her hand so she wouldn’t have to touch it with bare fingers again. She used the material to pick up the key and then tucked it into the other pocket of her pinafore.
Maybe Marigold could tell her more about the key.
She paused. Marigold. “Mr. Wilson? Do you think we might be able to negotiate an agreement with my uncle to allow Marigold to live with us? Because I couldn’t imagine—”
“I’m afraid that isn’t possible.”
“But she and I are very close, sir. We’ve never spent a day apart. Ever. I can’t—”
“It isn’t possible.” He stared her down, his one chin becoming two very cranky ones. “Until Miss Hadden comes of age, she is under our jurisdiction. Not yours. Do you understand? Now please sign every affidavit.” He tapped at the parchments.
Felicity swallowed knowing her nose was to a wall. At least with her uncle, she stood half a chance of seeing Marigold again. “Is my uncle a kind man, Mr. Wilson? Do you know?”
“I don’t know him personally, but he is incredibly popular in London and well known for supporting causes few do. Given your own views on the inequality of the sexes,” he chided, “you will be pleased to know he is a staunch supporter of the suffragette movement.”
She perked. “I’m impressed.” This uncle might redeem himself yet. “Is he married? Or is he an old bachelor?”
“His wife died many years ago. He and your cousin are all that remains of the Barrington name.”
It would seem nothing but death followed her family. “So I have a cousin?”
“Yes. Mister Harris Victor Barrington is a full eight and according to your uncle is incredibly excited to meet you.” Mr. Wilson leaned over the desk, took her hand and placed the pen into it. “Sign the papers.”
With an eight-year-old cousin in the house, how bad could it be? Fingering the pen, Felicity was about to sign the papers with the concise penmanship she had learned from the school master when she saw her uncle’s full name.
Cedric John Barrington.
Strange. She glanced up. “Is Barrington a common name, sir? Why do I seem to know it?”
Mr. Wilson leaned over the desk, the scent of his chewing tobacco piercing the stagnant air. “I imagine it could be due to the country excursion you and the girls took with the matrons last year. You all rode on one of your uncle’s trains. He owns the Barrington Railroad.”
Felicity’s lips parted. “My uncle owns a railroad? As in the tracks and the trains on it?”
“Yes. He has also generously donated a hundred thousand pounds to the hospital to celebrate finding you. Imagine all that will be done for your fellow foundlings due to his vast benevolence.”
In disbelief of the sum alone, she breathed out, “Who has that sort of money to give?”
“He does and that is a mild understatement. Your uncle is one of the most influential men in the industrial business not only here in England but in Paris. Setting aside his upstanding moral character, Mr. Barrington is worth close to eighteen million. Now please. Sign the papers.”
Holy and happy Christmas.
She signed the papers. All of them.