"We must buy some more ginger," said Sarah Meade, weighing the last of the reddish-yellow powder on the little brass scales. "There is just enough. And we are running out of currants for the eyes. I have chopped the candied peel and stolen a glass of brandy from Jonathan's keg. Is the sugar dissolved yet, Mrs. Hicks?"
The plump cook-housekeeper turned from the carrots she was dicing for that night's dinner to stir the mixture of butter and sugar melting in a saucepan on the stove.
"Aye, Miss Sarah, "tes ready. Did you measure out the treacle?"
"Yes, and a messy job it is. Still, everything is much easier since Jonathan bought the closed stove, and the Sunday school children do love gingerbread men."
"Half on 'em wouldn't show up, else," said Mrs. Hicks cynically. "Hark, now, summun's scratching at the back door. If ?tes one o? they gypsies I'll give un a piece o? me mind." She bustled through the scullery to open the door. "Why, if it bain't Nan Wootton. Never see hide nor hair of you in church but ?tes the vicarage you run to when there's trouble. What's up, then, girl?"
"Be Miss Meade at home?" came a doleful voice, punctuated by a sniff.
"What is it, Nan?" called Sarah, brushing back with floury fingers the curly wisps of dark hair that always escaped the severe coiffure she considered suitable for a vicar's sister. "Come into the kitchen, my dear, and tell me what I can do for you."
The girl who scurried in, followed by a disapproving Mrs. Hicks, was a sorry sight. Her pretty, round-cheeked face was disfigured by a black eye, her ash-blonde hair dishevelled, and her apron torn and muddy round the hem. Upon seeing Sarah, she burst into tears.
"Oh, miss!" she wailed.
Sarah gently urged her to sit down and explain her troubles. Drawn by the commotion, the Meades? housemaid, Nellie, stuck her head into the room.
"I'll wager I can guess what's up wi? that one," she observed. "No better than she should be, she ain't."
Mrs. Hicks shooed her out and tactfully went after her, closing the door.
"Oh, miss," sobbed Nan, "I got a bun in the oven and me Da hit me and me Mam throwed me out o? the house."
Sarah patted her shoulder comfortingly. "Who is the father?" she asked. Though Jonathan's parishioners were in general a well-behaved lot, this was by no means an unknown occurrence in the village of Little Fittleton.
"Might be Jem, as is ostler over to the George at Amesbury. He won't have nothing to do wi? me no more."
Sarah sighed. When there was more than one possible father, the outcome was rarely a wedding.
"Or might be Corporal Ritchie. He were quartered at Bulford, miss, and he told me he'd marry me and take me to London, and now the regiment's gone and what am I to do?"
"I must talk to Mr. and Mrs. Wootton. I'm sure they will take you back, Nan."
"Da said he niver wants to set eyes on me agin. I'm afeard to go home, miss, honest."
"Then there's no help for it. I shall send you to Lord Cheverell's home."
"Oh, miss, "is lordship won't want the likes o? me."
"His lordship has founded a home for unwed mothers," Sarah explained, hiding a smile, though she knew she should be shocked at the girl's assumption. "It is in Kensington, near London. I shall give you the address and buy you a ticket on the stage and you will need a pound or two for other expenses. They will take care of you there, I promise you, and the baby when it comes." She opened the kitchen door and called, "Mrs. Hicks! Pray take Nan upstairs to tidy herself. I must go and tell Arthur to put Dapple to the gig to take her to Amesbury to catch the London stage. He can buy ginger and currants while he is there, and see if you can think of anything else we need."
Within half an hour Nan, tearful and apprehensive, was driven off by the grumpy manservant. Sarah returned to her gingerbread men. As she stirred the flour into the congealed mixture of treacle, butter and sugar, her thoughts were not with the errant farm girl but with Adam Lancing, Viscount Cheverell.
Growing up at nearby Cheve House with a choleric father, an adoring mother, and four worshipful younger sisters, Adam had developed a strong empathy for female suffering. Since inheriting the title and the huge fortune that went with it, he had founded not only the home for unwed mothers but three orphanages for destitute girls and an almshouse for elderly gentlewomen. Sarah knew he took a personal interest in the management of these refuges, and in the welfare of their residents. In fact, he often consulted both Jonathan and herself on how to improve conditions and on the problems of individuals in his care.
The Meades had known Adam forever. Their father had been vicar of Little Fittleton, appointed by the late viscount as Jonathan had been appointed by the present holder of the title. Adam and Jonathan were the same age, seven and twenty now, and had been as close as brothers since early childhood.
Sarah, three years younger, had followed them into scrapes and adventures with a dogged persistence that had sometimes earned her snubs, sometimes grudging acceptance and occasionally admiration. She had scorned to sit with Adam's sisters sewing her sampler.
She had also shared the boys? lessons with the Reverend Meade until they had been sent off to Eton. At that point her mother had taken over her education. To such effect did Mrs. Meade inculcate the domestic virtues that upon her death, when Sarah was eighteen, the vicarage continued to run as smoothly as ever. Indeed, there were those who thought that the scholarly and absentminded vicar had scarcely noticed his wife's absence before he joined her not a year later in the graveyard of his own church.
For six years now Sarah had kept house for her brother, comforted his flock, helped him write his sermons, and taught the village children Bible stories in Sunday school. She had had her share of admirers, and more than one proposal of marriage. None had tempted her to leave Jonathan.
Only one man could ever do that, she thought wistfully as she rolled the sticky dough and started cutting out the gingerbread figures. But he regarded her as a friend, almost a sister. There had never been anything in the least romantic in the way Adam Lancing looked at Sarah Meade.
"Lawks, Miss Sarah, you've gone and put three eyes and two noses on that one," exclaimed Mrs. Hicks. "Not worryin? yer head ?bout that hussy, I hope."
Sarah picked off the extra currants and absently ate them.
"No, she will do very well at Lord Cheverell's home," she said.
At that moment her brother wandered in. Though Sarah was tall, the Reverend Jonathan Meade topped her by a head. They were both slim, with dark brown hair and the same grey eyes flecked with gold. A handsome pair, was the general consensus. Nor did those who held the motto Handsome is as Handsome Does, find anything to cavil at. The vicar of Little Fittleton and his sister were welcome in the houses of rich and poor, noble and commoner alike.
"Whom have you sent to Adam's home?" Jonathan enquired, stealing a scrap of dough. "Delicious," he added in a muffled voice.
"Poor Nan Wootton. Don't take any more or there will not be enough to go around. She does not know who is the father, I fear, and Farmer Wootton has disowned her."
"I'll have a talk with him. Sometimes I wonder whether anyone hears a word I say about Christian charity."
"At least you do not need to preach to Adam on that subject. His concern for the unfortunate is beyond praise."
"Yes, on that subject there is nothing to be said," Jonathan agreed, with a dry inflexion that his sister missed.
"I daresay he will be here shortly. Jane has quarrelled with Lord Bradfield again and run home to Cheve, and Lady Cheverell told me she has sent for Adam to sort them out."
"Jane is a silly young woman," the vicar said with unwonted severity, "as are all the Lancing girls. Not a ha?p?orth of sense between them. Not one of them can hold a candle to you, my dear."
"Thank you, kind sir." Sarah dimpled and curtsied. "Mrs. Hicks, open the oven, if you please. Here are Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and friends, ready to enter the burning fiery furnace."
"When Adam comes, do you mean to ask him about supporting your school?" asked Jonathan, nabbing another pinch of dough while Sarah's back was turned.
"Yes. Do you think he will? So many people seem to think it foolish, even wrong, to teach common children to read and write, especially girls."
"Adam has always respected your judgement."
Sarah hoped the heat of the oven would explain her pink cheeks.
"I seem to remember a certain occasion when he had to carry me down from the top of a larch tree ..."
He grinned. "Never let you forget that, did he? Don't worry, I expect he will give you the funds to set up your school. I must go and start on Sunday's sermon. Bring me Shadrach when he is baked, will you? Payment for the brandy you put in the dough."
An hour later, Sarah left her brother nibbling on a gingerbread man in his study and returned to the kitchen to wrap several more in a clean linen napkin.
"Johnny Cratch hurt his leg and won't be able to come to Sunday school," she explained to Mrs. Hicks as she put them in a basket. "And little Mary Sopwith is feverish, and Esmeralda Buddle has the earache."
"Won't be none left come Sunday," grumbled Mrs. Hicks as her mistress set off with the basket on her arm. "Too kind-?earted by arf."