‘We have two housemaids. They come in three times a week to do the cleaning. We do not require any more.’
‘Yes, my lord.’ To wrangle in front of the staff was impossible. Tess stood up, dropped a neat curtsy and waited for the footman to open the door for her. ‘We will go immediately, if you have finished your current tasks, MacDonald.’
* * *
‘It’s a very good agency,’ MacDonald confided as they stood outside the door with its neat brass plate. ‘His lordship gets all his staff here.’
Twinford and Musgrave Domestic Agency. Est. 1790. It certainly sounded established and efficient, Tess told herself. They would guide her, which was a good thing, because she had only the vaguest idea of the details of a lady’s maid’s duties.
MacDonald opened the door for her. ‘Mrs Ellery from Lord Weybourn’s establishment, requiring a lady’s maid,’ he informed the man at the desk, who rose after a rapid assessment of Tess’s gown, pelisse and muff. She was grateful for Hannah’s insistence on good-quality clothes or presumably she would have been directed to join the queue of applicants lined up on the far side of the hall herself.
‘Certainly, madam. Would you care to step through to the office? My assistant will discuss your requirements and review the available—’
He was interrupted by a baby’s wailing cry. The door opposite opened and a young woman backed out, clutching the child to her breast. ‘But, Mr Twinford, I can turn my hand to anything. I’ll wash, I can sew, scrub—’
She was of medium height, neatly and respectably dressed, although not warmly enough for the weather, Tess thought, casting an anxious look at the baby who was swathed in what seemed to be a cut-down pelisse.
‘You’ve turned your hand to more than domestic duties, my girl.’ The voice from the office sounded outraged. ‘How can you have the gall to expect an agency with our reputation to recommend a fallen woman to a respectable household?’
‘But, Mr Twinford, I never...’ The woman was pale, thin and, to Tess’s eyes, quite desperate.
‘Out!’ The door slammed in her face and she stumbled back.
‘I do beg your pardon, Mrs Ellery. Shocking!’ The clerk moved round the side of the desk. ‘Now, look here, you—’
‘Stop it. You are frightening the baby.’ Tess stepped between them. ‘What is your name?’
‘Dorcas White, ma’am.’ Her voice was quiet, genteel, exhausted. Close up, Tess could see how neatly her clothes had been mended, how carefully the baby’s improvised coverings had been constructed.
‘Are you a lady’s maid, Dorcas?’
‘I was, ma’am. Once.’
‘Come with me.’ She turned to the spluttering clerk, who was trying to get past her to take Dorcas’s arm. ‘Will you please stop pushing? We are leaving.’ She guided the unresisting woman out to the street and into the waiting carriage. ‘There, now at least we have some peace and we are out of the wind. You say you are a lady’s maid and you are looking for a position?’
‘I was, but I can’t be one now, not with Daisy here. I’ll do anything, work at anything, but I’ll not give her up to the parish.’
‘Certainly not.’ All that was visible of the baby was a button nose and one waving fist. ‘Where is her father?’
Dorcas went even whiter. ‘He...he threw me out when I started to show.’
‘What, you mean he was your employer?’ A nod. ‘Did he force you?’ Another nod. ‘And his wife said nothing?’
‘He told her I’d... He said I had...’
She would get the full story later when the poor woman was less distressed. ‘Well, we won’t worry about that now. I need a lady’s maid. You can come and work for me. Or for Lord Weybourn, rather.’
‘You are Lady Weybourn?’ Dorcas was staring at her as though she could not believe what she was hearing.
‘Me?’ Tess steadied her voice. ‘No, I am his new housekeeper, but it is an all-male household and I need a maid for appearances, you understand.’ She looked at the thin, careworn face, the chapped hands gently cradling the baby, the look of desperate courage in the dark eyes. ‘It would be more like a companion’s post, really. Would you like the position?’
‘Oh, yes, ma’am. Oh, yes, please.’ And Dorcas burst into tears.