Title: The Mazzard Tree
Series: The Hartford Manor Series
Author: Marcia Clayton
1880 North Devon, England
Annie Carter is a farm labourer’s daughter, and life is a continual struggle for survival. When her father dies of consumption, her mother, Sabina, is left with seven hungry mouths to feed and another child on the way. To save them from the workhouse or starvation, Annie steals vegetables from the Manor House garden, risking jail or transportation. Unknown to her, she is watched by Robert, the wealthy heir to the Hartford Estate, but far from turning her in, he befriends her.
Despite their different social backgrounds, Annie and Robert develop feelings they know can have no future. Harry Rudd, the village blacksmith, has long admired Annie, and when he proposes, her mother urges her to accept. She reminds Annie, that as a kitchen maid, she will never be allowed to marry Robert. Harry is a good man, and Annie is fond of him. Her head knows what she should do, but will her heart listen?
Set against the harsh background of the rough, class-divided society of Victorian England, this heart-warming and captivating novel portrays a young woman who uses her determination and willpower to defy the circumstances of her birth in her search for happiness.
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Sabina dried her hands and signalled Annie to do the same, and then they followed Hannah into her house. Chickens ran in and out, leaving a mess all over the floor. Tommy, the youngest child, was crawling around in all the filth, for although he was two, he had rickets and could not walk. His face was covered in sores, and his nose was running. Rachael, at four, was sitting by her sick sister’s bed, tugging her hand.
“Come an’ play with me, Mary.”
Annie picked up Rachael and settled her on her knee. Rachael loved the attention and Tommy crawled up to sit on the other knee. Annie wiped his nose, brushed his brown curly hair out of his eyes, and gave them both a cuddle. She wondered if her own hair would be crawling with lice by the time she went home.
Sabina put her hand on Mary’s forehead, which was hot, and the child was pale and listless. “What’s the matter, Mary? Where does it hurt?”
Mary pointed to her throat and whispered hoarsely, “It hurts in there, and my head, and everywhere.”
“Never mind, we’ll soon have you better, don’t worry. Could you eat some stew?”
Mary shook her head miserably. She was six years old, but small for her age, and Sabina could see many clusters of nits stuck to her wispy brown hair.
“Sabina, I could eat some stew if you’ve any to spare, and I’ll bet Rachael and Tommy could manage some too.”
Hannah, and her husband, John, were both fat and lazy, but the children were thin, dirty, and ill-kempt. Sabina’s eyes flashed with anger.
“I’ve plenty of food in my kitchen, Hannah because I work hard. I’ll take Rachael and Tommy home with me to have some, and I’ll bathe them too because they’re filthy. I know you’re poor but look at the state of this place. When did you last clean up, or do any cooking? Or does all your money go on that bloody scrumpy? I’m sorry, but it’s time someone told you a few home truths; you should be ashamed of yourself. Now, I could leave Annie here with you, if she’ll stay, to help you clean up. I’ll come back at teatime, and if the place is clean, I’ll bring rabbit stew for all of you. Just this once though, for you have a man to provide for you, which is more than I have.”
“How dare you! It’s none of your business how I keep my house. Things have got on top of me a bit, that’s all.”
“Please yourself then; it’s no odds to me. Mary certainly isn’t well, but it might just be a nasty cold. Now, do you want Annie’s help, or not? It’s up to you.”
“Aye, I suppose the place could do with a bit of a clean, and you’ll bring enough supper for all of us?”
“Yes, I’ll bring some later, and see how Mary is. Annie, would you mind helping Hannah?”
Annie, facing away from Hannah, pulled a face and screwed up her nose, but she nodded. Sabina grinned as she left with the two children. As she entered her own cottage, Sabina called to Liza.
“Liza, could you put a couple of pans of water on the fire, please? I want to bathe these two. I don’t suppose they’ve ever had a bath, so they may not think a lot to it, but they certainly need one.”
Sabina explained about Mary, and how Annie was helping Hannah to clean up.
“She’s a lazy slut, that woman, and it will soon be like it again, you know. She’s too lazy to lift a finger to care for that family properly, and her mother was just the same. They don’t deserve to have children, and they don’t deserve your help either, Sabina. Goodness, you’ve enough to do to feed and look after your own.”
“Aye, you’re right, of course, but I felt so sorry for the children. It isn’t their fault, and Mary, poor little thing, she was so poorly.”
Liza pulled the old tin bath in front of the fire and filled it with warm water. Rachael and Tommy sat wide-eyed, anxiously watching the activity around them. Sabina decided to start with Rachael and sat her on her knee.
“Now, Rachael, I’m going to take off these dirty clothes and bathe you. You’ll like it in that lovely warm water, and afterwards, you’ll feel much better. Then we’ll see if we can find you something clean to wear, while I wash your clothes.”
Sabina gently undressed the little girl, chatting all the time as she lowered her into the bath. Rachael went stiff with fright and kept her legs rigid. She started to thrash about and scream.
“No, no, don’t. I don’t wanna get wet. No, don’t. Let me go! Mummy, I want my mummy. Don’t.”
Sabina held her gently, but firmly. “Come on, Rachael, I want you to show Tommy what a big, brave girl you are. You’ll like it in the water when you sit down, and if you let me wash you, I’ll find you a bowl of rabbit stew, with a big slice of bread. Are you hungry?”
At the mention of food, Rachael immediately became more cooperative and sat down gingerly. She still seemed frightened, but as Sabina began to splash the warm water gently over her tiny body, she began to relax. It saddened Sabina to see that she was covered in flea bites, and her hair was crawling with lice. There were also a few suspicious bruises. Gently, Sabina soaped the grime from the child’s body, cut her hair short, and then washed what was left to get rid of the lice. Rachael began to enjoy herself and suddenly grinned at Sabina.
“This is nice like you said. I like it in here. Can I stay a bit longer?”
Sabina let her stay a few minutes longer, then lifted her out and dried her. She reached for an old blue dress and popped it over Rachael’s head.
“There, you look beautiful now. Liza will give you some stew for being so brave. Right then, Tommy, it’s your turn now, but I think we’ll need some clean water first.”
About the Author:
Marcia Clayton was born in North Devon, a rural and picturesque area in the far South West of England. She is a farmer’s daughter and often helped to milk the cows and clean out the shippens in her younger days.
When Marcia left school she worked in a bank for several years until she married her husband, Bryan, and then stayed at home for a few years to care for her three sons, Stuart, Paul and David. As the children grew older, Marcia worked as a Marie Curie nurse caring for the terminally ill, and later for the local authority managing school transport.
Now a grandmother, Marcia enjoys spending time with her family and friends. She’s a keen researcher of family history, and it was this hobby that inspired some of the characters in her books. A keen gardener, Marcia grows many of her own vegetables. She is also an avid reader and mainly enjoys historical fiction, romance and crime books.
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Thank you so much for hosting Marcia Clayton today. Much appreciated. xo
Thank you so much, Heather, for hosting The Hartford Manor Blog Tour today. Much appreciated.