Chapter 2 - Catherine
Polly O’Brady was a Lady’s Maid who waited on Catherine Penderly, second wife of the notorious politician, Lord Grenville Penderly, at their home in Penderly Castle in Kent. As the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Lord Penderly spent a lot of his time out of the country, often accompanied by his wife and entourage of Lady’s Maid and Butler. Abroad, he proudly showed off his wife, who’s long, red curls and piercing blue eyes made her stand out from the crowd and made him the envy of many of his associates. At home, however, Lord Penderly was a brute with a violent temper who had previously gambled away all of his money and who had little respect for his long-suffering wife. Catherine was a spirited young girl when she married him but was soon ‘brought into line’ by her overbearing husband. She was the only surviving child of a wealthy Scottish landowner and was very aware that her husband had only married her for her wealth and to provide a mother for his two children. There was no love in their relationship. Consequently, Polly spent many a night wiping tears from her mistress’ eyes and applying wet cloths to her bruised face and arms after her drunken husband had taken his frustrations out on his hapless wife.
In the quietness of a late February evening, Polly O’Brady sat patiently by her bedroom window peering out into the darkness of the castle grounds, hoping and praying for sight of Lady Penderly making her way back to the castle. Her mistress was unaware that her husband was about to return home from Fiji and if she was not in the castle upon his arrival there would undoubtedly be trouble.
Polly was worried, very worried. She was certain her Ladyship was not “visiting her cousin”, as she claimed. She suspected it was no coincidence that her social visits to her cousin always coincided with the arrival of a new foal or mare from Ireland.
The Quarter-Moon cast very little light over the grounds that night but Polly’s patience was eventually rewarded when, in the darkness below, she saw the silhouette of a cloaked woman hasten from the stable yard to the west wing entrance to the castle. Polly recognised the figure and was thankful her Ladyship would soon be safely back inside. As she stood to move away from the window, for the briefest moment the moonlight caught the movement of a male figure as he too, moved away from the stable yard. As she suspected, Lady Penderly had been neither visiting her cousin, nor alone that evening.
Minutes later Polly was loosening a maroon velvet cloak from around Lady Penderly’s neck. Discreetly, she pulled a stray piece of dry grass from where it was entangled in the ringlets at the back of her hair and without a word she reached for the hairbrush and brushed out her long red curls. She quickly powdered her flushed cheeks and straightened the necklace that lay across her collarbone. When her mistress was refreshed, she took her leave and returned to her own room, grateful that the evening had ended without incident, or at least, she hoped it had.
The events of that February night were never spoken of again between Lady Penderly and her maid but later, as the castle’s gardens blossomed in the May sunshine, they were to be recalled.
Lady Penderly had been suffering from a Spring sickness and Polly had brought a herbal tonic from the local Apocethary to try to ease her symptoms but when she offered the potion to her mistress she rejected it, claiming that the smell of the tonic was too strong. There was only one reason Polly could think of that would make her mistress wretch at the smell of something so mild and once the thought had surfaced, the cause of her sickness became obvious. The pieces of the jigsaw suddenly slipped into place, her Ladyship’s constant lethargy, her widening girth and her preference for peppermint tea, there was little doubt she was with child.
Polly broached the subject cautiously “M’am, I’ve been wondering if you might be needing the services of a midwife, or will you be calling on Doctor Simpson?”.
Lady Penderly’s eyes filled with tears. “Is it obvious?” she asked. Her pleading eyes looked to Polly for help. “What am I to do? If my husband finds out I will be excommunicated and I will never cope alone”.
Polly doubted there was any genuine love between the couple but she was surprised that her mistress did not appear to be overjoyed by her impending motherhood.
“Surely his Lordship will be delighted with the news that he is to be a father again”.
A telling silence ensued.
Polly sat and took her hand. “Are you saying he is not the father?”
Lady Penderly nodded in confirmation and lowered her head as her maid questioned how she could be so sure.
“Because my husband despises me” she replied. “Bertha was his first and only love. He married me for my money. On our wedding night, he told me he could not bear to look upon my face because he was repulsed by the mole below my lip. And still, he is so repulsed by me that we have never lain together as man and wife. So, you see, he will be in no doubt that he is not the father of my child”.
For a moment, Polly was shocked by her mistress’s revelation.
“So, it is the Irishman’s child” she mumbled to herself.
Lady Penderly was surprised that her maid was aware of her affair. “What am I to do. I cannot rid myself of my only child. Oh, Polly, my life is ended.”
In her usual unflappable manner Polly tried to take control.
“Don’t panic, M’am, there must be a way to sort this out. For now, you must just carry on as normal, give me a day or two to think of a solution. Trust me, your life is not ended.”
Polly knew who she needed to talk to and she promised to do so with the utmost discretion. She could not risk anyone finding out the truth of their predicament, yes, ‘their’ predicament because, after all, what was a Lady’s Maid without a Lady to wait on?
True to her word, Polly came up with a plan and four days later, the plan was put into action. Lady Penderly informed her husband of the sudden illness of a great aunt and how she had been called to keep her company in her ailment. Aware of her extended family’s wealth, her husband immediately saw this as an opportunity to tap into even more of it and encouraged her to leave at once, with Polly of course.
With the help of Peggy Jameson, a very dear friend of her mother’s, and the promise of financial support, Polly had managed to arrange to rent a cottage in the Scottish Highlands for the duration of the pregnancy and also for the child to be taken in by Mr and Mrs Corbett, a local farming couple, who would raise it as their own. And so, as the month of June approached the two women, accompanied by Peggy’s son, Benjamin, set off on their journey to Aviemore where, hidden away from the world, they would await Catherine’s confinement.
Their time together in the Highlands was very different from their ordinary lives and unsurprisingly, the three dissimilar companions soon became very close friends. Catherine did what she could to help out around the cottage but in the main, Polly and Benjamin looked after her, and that suited them all nicely.
And then, one cold November morning, after days of unbearable pain Catherine gave birth to a daughter, a beautiful child with the same full lips as herself and the same neat nose as her lover.
She had been completely unprepared for the rush of maternal love that she experienced as she held the tiny, helpless infant in her arms for the first time but Polly knew what needed to be done. Benjamin was immediately dispatched to tell the Corbetts the good news and return with them to collect the child. His journey from Aviemore to Kent and back would take at least a week and during that time the young mother savoured every precious moment she had with her newborn baby. As the days went on Polly grew increasingly concerned as she watched their bond grow stronger and Catherine grew more and more fearful of the dreaded day when she would have to hand her precious child over to the Corbetts forever. She was continually reminded her that she could not keep the child and each time she tried to argue that there must be a way but ultimately she had to accept the inevitable.
Night after night, as she cradled her baby in her arms, show thought of how much she regretted marrying her husband. Their marriage made her fortune his by law. If she hadn’t married him she would be wealthy enough to take care of her child herself but if she was to leave him now she would be penniless. She knew he would never accept the child and if he ever even knew of her existence, he would divorce her for adultery and she would be destitute. With no money and no husband what kind of a life would she have to offer her baby? Although the very thought of it broke her heart, Catherine knew she had no choice but to give her up.
Benjamin returned from Kent with devastating news. The Corbetts had changed their minds and had decided that they couldn’t offer the child a home, after all. Upon hearing the news, Catherine’s eyes suddenly glinted with both hope and fear. She was desperate to find a way to be able to keep her daughter but she knew there was no way she could return home with her baby and she could never, ever abandon her. Another adoption had to be arranged. Tears of frustration filled her eyes as she hugged her baby tightly to her chest.
Polly was equally horrified by the turn of events. There was no backup plan. She had no idea what to do next. Very soon they would be expected to return to Penderly Castle. She watched on as Catherine clung tightly to the tiny child that they had already grown to love so much, but who so innocently and unknowingly threatened to ruin both of their lives. Polly had nothing to suggest. What would her mistress do now?
Another week went by and still the trio seemed no further forward, until the morning that Catherine called Polly into her room. The expression on her face was one of sadness and resignation. She had an idea that might work but she needed to leave the child with Polly for a while until she made the necessary arrangements. Polly agreed and later that day, Catherine reluctantly headed off to try to arrange the solution to their problem.
Without Lady Penderly around, Polly had to mother the infant herself. She had already grown to love the child, despite her best efforts for emotional detachment. As the days went on, she began to imagine what it would have been like to have had a family of her own. As the fire crackled in the hearth beside her, Polly rocked the baby in her arms, holding her close and breathing in the unmistakable smell of a newborn. She was such a sweet little thing with such a placid nature. A short while later, Benjamin came into the room to find the pair asleep. He gently lifted the child away and laid her in the crib, then laid a blanket over Polly. He stroked a hair away from her face and frowned. This situation was destined to end in tears and heartbreak but for now, at least, she could sleep peacefully.
There was no knowing when Lady Penderly would return but until she did, Polly and Benjamin had no choice but to carry on. There were plenty of supplies in the cupboard to keep them going for a while yet so for now there was no concern but they wouldn’t last forever and if she didn’t return within a week, Benjamin would have to find a job. It was a strange situation he found himself in, that was sure, but he didn’t mind, he had always been very fond of Polly and he was enjoying the time he was spending with her. It reminded him of their childhood together. In fact, if truth be told, Benjamin was loving it. They were like a proper little family, him, Polly and the baby. He wouldn’t be disappointed if they had to stay here, like this, forever. Christmas would soon be upon them and for a moment he allowed himself to fantasize that Polly was his wife and the little one, his daughter. He imagined bringing in a tree and dressing it with baubles and bells for them. It was a nice thought but it didn’t last long. From his vantage point on the stone wall by the gate he could see a carriage approaching in the distance. A mellow sadness overwhelmed him. His fantasy was coming to an end.
Catherine alighted from the carriage and thanked the driver, pressing money into his hands before he left. She dashed into the cottage and whisked her baby up into her arms, holding her tightly to her face. “Oh, my little one, I have missed you so much”. Polly watched on enviously but stepped back submissively. After a couple of minutes of cooing and cuddling, she gently laid the baby back in her crib and took a seat at the small table where she explained all the details of her plan. It wasn’t what she really wanted but as she couldn’t keep the baby herself, this was the next best thing. Everything was arranged, all she needed now was Polly’s agreement.
Polly was filled with mixed emotions. Of course, she would be honoured to raise the little girl herself but she had been at Penderly Castle for so long and leaving them all would be terrible. She was worried about Lady Penderly, would she be OK without her? Catherine assured her she would be fine. She would have Benjamin. A job in the Castle was his reward for chaperoning them during these past months. But Benjamin wasn’t so happy. He smiled and agreed that it was the best solution but inside he was devastated. He had only agreed to be a part of all of this because he wanted to be close to Polly and now, he would be in Kent and she would be moving to Winchester. Decision made, the trio sat quietly, each contemplating the sacrifice they were facing but knowing that they had to do it, for the child’s sake.
16 years later.
Benjamin Jameson, Butler to Lord Penderly, was pondering on how he would approach her Lady Catherine and break the shocking news to her that her daughter had turned up at their door and was currently hidden away in a dusty old attic at the top of the house.