Prickly Hawthorn Village #3

A Break in the Clouds

by Karen Dean Benson

A Break in the Clouds by Karen Dean Benson

Castles are built a stone at a time... an Irish proverb

Hawthorn Village, Ireland 1840

Miss Natty, upon taking a short-cut through the woods, discovered a distressed peddler holding an infant. Undernourished children hovered near their sickly mother lying prone on the grass, a peddler’s blue wagon nearby.

The father begged Natty to hold the infant as he tended his wife.

Sensing a dire need, she gathered the infant and ran to her cottage for milk and bread returning to discover the wagon, and its occupants gone.

Sir Finbarr O’Bannon is not rebuilding Ashcourt Manor in his mother’s memory—he’s rebuilding it to heal his own heart. Then, with a clear conscience, he intends to sell it and be done with the past forever. He left Hawthorn Village at an early age and ended up in Swansea, Wales working in the copper mines.He’s a strong, self-made, honorable man who holds the opinion that people are only as good as their humanity toward others.

He’s a strong, honorable man who holds the opinion that people are only as good as their humanity toward others.

Miss Brianna Walsh frequently sets up an easel on the hill overlooking what was once beautiful Ashcourt Manor. Her struggles with insecurity fade when she is absorbed in painting the rundown exterior of Ashcourt. She embellishes the canvas with flowers in the field, or a grinning elfin face in an upstairs window, thus easing a feeling of rejection that lurks in the shadows of her mind. Because like her, Ashcourt has been abandoned. She recently returned to her aunt’s home after three years as a governess in Dundalk.

Briana is an intelligent young woman who secretly struggles with insecurity arresting any notion of a traditional future.

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Release Date: November 16, 2021
Genre: Historical Romance


Chapter One

County Waterford, Ireland

Hawthorn Village - May 1840


Mim met Brianna at the back door. The housekeeper reached for the drawing pad and satchel the lass carried. “Your first morning home and you were up and out early. I can see you’ve still got your love of sketching that dilapidated old manor.”

Brianna untangled the scarf from about her neck and hung it and her sunhat on a peg. “That old ruin as you refer to Ashcourt was on my mind almost every day since I’ve been gone. I couldn’t wait another day.”

“For the life of me, lass, I can’t see what you like about a place filled with banshees.”

“Since when did you start believing in myths?” She hugged Mim. “I missed your teasing. It’s nice to know some things never changed. You haven’t mellowed one bit.”

“Livin’ with the rich and haughty as you’ve done these past three years. Don’t think we’ll be pampering you now that you’re here to stay.”

Brianna laughed. “You do know I was one of the staff at the Reynold’s home? I took all my meals in the kitchen like the rest of the workers.”

Her aunt’s cheerful sounds carried from the front parlor. “I’m in the parlor waiting on you, my dear.”

Brianna did not roll her eyes, the love she felt for her aunt was more likely to raise a chuckle. “She must feel better. Thanks for setting my painting gear out of the way.” Brianna felt blest to come home to her aunt. And though Mim was the housekeeper, she has been part of the household since before Brianna was born.

Mim set a bowl and whisk on the table, preparing to make something delicious, no doubt. “You’re welcome. Now scat.”

Brianna hustled into the parlor and leaned over, planting a kiss on her dear aunt’s forehead. The lace of her cap tickled Brianna’s nose, and she held a sneeze in the nick of time, then sank onto the adjoining sofa. “How is your ankle today? I see you are relying on a shillelagh.”

“Mim found it in the attic. It suits simply fine.”

Brianna picked at a thistle tangled on her hem and twisted the stem about her finger. “It’s grand to be home.” The flowered wallpaper and lacy curtains were the essence of her dainty aunt and the sweetness in her heart.

“You haven’t been here a full day yet. You must have been out the door before you ate?”

“I packed an apple and a biscuit. I wanted to sketch the early morning sunrise with charcoal. I intend going back this afternoon.” She hadn’t much time to herself with so many Reynolds children to keep after. Though school hours were normally morning until mid-afternoon, with luncheon served in the schoolroom. After class, the daughters always seemed to want private conversations, or a walk in the garden, or visiting an exhibit or other. Brianna found little time to indulge her painting. And most often was exhausted by the end of the day.

Aunt Natty’s fingers were plying knitting needles. She made blankets and caps and booties for expectant mothers. The hospital in Waterford and the Curran Infirmary in Hawthorn Village were her usual recipients. “Mim and I lived a quiet and orderly existence without you and all your comings and goings. It’s a great relief to have you returned. Maybe now life will perk up. You were missed, my darling.” Aunt Natty swiped at something in her eye.

Brianna swallowed a lump and batted her eyes to keep from tearing up.

Being an assistant governess for a family of six children mostly presented an exciting experience. Her gaze swept about the parlor, but there is something to be said about home.

Brianna’s love for her aunt made for a boundless and extraordinary bond. Two souls brought together under quite unusual circumstances twenty-three years ago, Brianna being a wee infant, and Natty eager to become an aunt and love that babe.

Aunt Natty let out a length of yarn as she continued to knit. “Now, I wish to bring up a subject you reflected on last night before we retired.”

“Do you refer to the Reynolds family, or the journey?”

“No, no. I’ve enough about the ton and all their grandness. You mentioned a person on the coach. A man you pegged as dreadful?” Aunt Natty set her needles down and sipped her tea. “He didn’t give you any trouble, did he? You could have complained to the coachman.”

Brianna dropped the thistle on the tray, brushed off her hands, and took up her tea. “He seemed to take dislike of Mrs. Hammond, a passenger, and her two young daughters as they harmonized. She taught them lyrics as a way of passing time.

“He scowled a lot. Mumbled something about privacy. Which rendered him absurd when you consider there is no privacy. Seven days of travel is bound to bring out a snit or two. I would have thought he had the means to own a coach. He was high in the instep.  An elegant dresser somewhat similar to Mr. Reynolds.”

Huffed up with her explanation, she waited a moment then continued her description. “He wore the finest black leather shoes. And every hair in place. Furthermore, I’m quite sure he hasn’t children, otherwise he would have exhibited sympathy toward the mother attempting to keep her little ones occupied.” Thinking of his odious behavior raised her hackles and she sipped the cooling tea to calm herself.

Aunt Natty’s bright blue eyes peered over the rim of her cup. “It sounds like the attention you paid him gave you an understanding of the gentleman. So, tell me, what did you do next, my darling?” She smiled at her niece, obviously anticipating a quip.

Brianna set the cup down, frustrated, thinking about the five of them cooped up and the coach’s pitching and rolling as it sped along the countryside. The need to defend herself bothersome she did so anyway. “I pointed out his impolite judgment of the mother and her daughters. That poor woman already besieged with fidgeting children her face blotched with humiliation no doubt brought on by his boorish attitude.

“Thankfully, her daughters were young enough they didn’t appear to take notice. Though I must say, their harmony could have used an adjustment for the better. There were times I would have rather gone into my daydreaming than listen to them sing one more time.”

Her aunt grinned. “Are you going to tell me? I’ve longed for your entertaining tales.”

Brianna firmed up her chin. “You are certain I embarrassed myself?”

Her aunt’s eyebrows lifted as if to say and when have you not. “I’m waiting.”

“As any decent person would, I explained to him they were rather young and as children often are, overly friendly. I might also have mentioned that his churlishness came dangerously close to hurting tender feelings.”

“Begorrah, lass. Did he put you in your place?”

Brianna’s lips pursed as she recalled the entire scene. “We were stopped at an inn to change the horses out and get a bite to eat. I wanted to be as discreet as possible and not say anything in front of the mother—I had to react.”

She huffed. “But what did thathorrid man do? He stalked toward the table where they sat. I knew exactly what he planned from the way he grudgingly stomped his way across the floorboards, and I wanted to put the kybosh on him. His eyes narrowed like chips of green glass as he fixed on the mother and her two daughters and calmly said, Please accept my apology for being short with you. It was not my intention by any means. He then tipped his hat and retired to a private corner and sat.

Aunt Natty clapped her hands. “Then, what did you say?”

“Aunt Natty, please, I am not a monster. His behavior drew out beyond necessary. Somebody needed to shake him. The mother’s cheeks blistered red with mortification.” She shifted in her seat and glanced at her hands.

“Don’t stop now. What happened next?”

“We were another four hours in the coach with no harmonizing. Thankfully, we stopped at Bennetsbridge for the night.”

“That would put you two days from home.” She sped on. “It must have been a relief to get away from the cramped coach.”

“As it turned out, the mother and daughters stayed at the inn that night then transferred the next day to Kilkenny. The gentleman didn’t dine that evening, nor did we suffer his presence the next day. Good riddance, I say.”

Pussycat trotted into the parlor purring loudly, her yellow-eyed scan swept from Brianna to Aunt Natty. Decision made, she jumped on the sofa, snuggling on Brianna’s lap. Her fluffy reddish tail flagged with pleasure.

Brianna teased, “Missed me, did you?”

Aunt Natty reported, “I have something of interest for you. Mrs. Teaberry has been waiting for your return. She has an offer to make you.”

Curious, Brianna prodded, “I wonder what that might be?”

“She has need of a part-time assistant sorting mail and tending the window. I can’t recall if I wrote about Mrs. Teaberry as our postmistress and that her husband is no longer mayor and now the post office has been fitted into the front rooms of their home.”

“Isn’t that a bit cumbersome? Will the coach deliver packages there, too?”

“Oh, my yes. Mrs. Teaberry wanted it no other way.” She fiddled with her handkerchief, expecting to quell a sneeze, but nothing came of it. “I’ll never understand why she gave over her lovely home. A bit of tattle is that she gets paid to use her home, otherwise the General Post Office would have to rent space somewhere else, and it would cost more.”

Pussycat must have heard Mim dropping tidbits into her bowl. She pushed off Brianna’s lap and dashed down the corridor.

“I shall see her first thing tomorrow then.”

* * *

It was mid-afternoon, and Brianna was intent on painting her beloved Ashcourt. A black and yellow bumblebee, pollen stuck to its hairy legs, fluttered between Brianna’s nose and the canvas. The buzzing distracted her focus on what would eventually be a mighty oak with its lofty dense canopy of green spreading toward the ruin of Ashcourt Manor.

As she turned to swoosh the insect away with her left hand, she inadvertently swept her right hand, that held her paint brush, across the image on the canvas. The bee floated on its merry way, leaving her with a mess.

Returning the brush to the sill on the easel, she stood and arched her back, hands at her waist. She glanced at the cerulean sky dotted with wisps of white that gave the appearance of gauze floating in the wind. A light breeze ruffled the pond.

She decided to call it a day and began gathering up her paints and folding the easel. Something about the dappled sunlight in the trees and curled dead leaves skittering across the unkempt drive caused her heart to catch. Over the years, she had been drawn to this sad, lonely place. Many years actually, with the exception of the last three.

Until a few weeks ago, she had been an assistant governess to a family with six daughters, all of whom were little more than two years apart. The Reynolds’ huge estate north of Dublin, Dundalk to be precise, overlooked the Irish Sea. Aged out of the schoolroom and ready for advanced learning, one by one the daughters emptied the quaint schoolroom to the point where Brianna had been relieved of her position.

She had known the time would come when her position would cease. The Reynold’s daughters were lovely colleens, and quite different. Strong-minded Annette; Jill-Ann sweet as apple pie; Mary, definitely an intellectual; Kristen who always had her nose in a book; Emma quiet and, it was obvious, their father’s treasured; and the youngest, Sarah, who with her remarkable beauty, attracted attention whenever she traipsed into a room.

Brianna looked forward to returning to her own life and bid them all fond farewell with a dribble of tears amongst lingering hugs and promises to write.

Having returned to Hawthorn Village and their cozy cottage off the corner of Stoney Batter and Forge, she began picking up the pieces of her life, amongst them her painting visits to Ashcourt Manor. Its weather-worn exterior had been sorely missed.

Like an old friend, she held deep affection for the decaying place.

Ashcourt had been rejected long ago, the same as Brianna had been as an infant. Her empathy for this crumbling edifice knew no bounds. She equated the manor’s neglect with her own and always painted the home with something alive. A face in the window, a patch of wildflowers, bunnies scampering about, or a red bloom clinging stubbornly to the crumbling arbor gate.

Brianna stooped toward her box of paints and closed the lid. She should repaint the dark slash that marred the scene. But an ominous cloud, most likely filled with rain, slowly moved in from the east. She finished packing and made for home.

Aunt Natty had suffered an accident two days previous to Brianna’s return from Dundalk. She twisted her ankle on her way to the milliners and fallen in the lane. A stranger, a well-dressed gentleman as her aunt explained, came to her rescue, and took her to the infirmary.

Her aunt almost swooned when talking about the stranger. She prattled on in a dither because she forgot to ask his name. A bit of blood from her scrape and her ankle painfully swelling, her manners escaped her, and she didn’t thank him. He had been kind and quite considerate.

Hawthorn Village’s doctor, Mr. Curran, kept her overnight in the infirmary. In the morning, Aunt Natty insisted she go home. Her niece was arriving after an absence of three long years, and it would not do to be gone when the coach arrived.

Brianna smiled, thinking of Aunt Natty ordering the doctor to take her home. Some things never change. As it happened, Aunt Natty arrived home less than an hour before Brianna arrived with her trunk and satchel. The coach would have been an hour or so earlier, but they were forced to wait for a rider to check in and take his seat.

Upon learning about her aunt’s accident, Brianna had considered the coach might have been waiting for the rude gentleman who had gotten off at Bennetsbridge. But was greatly relieved to learn otherwise when an elder gentleman took the seat next to her, though he never offered an explanation as to why he held up the coach for an hour. She could only surmise he either owned the coaching company or paid a great deal of money because the policy did not allow for the postillion to wait on people.

She and Aunt Natty had spent last evening catching up. Though their letters had been frequent, she yearned for their evenings together when they nestled in comfortable chairs with a cozy fire, sipping tea, and sharing the day’s events.


A surprising interview


The next day in the early-morning, Brianna readied for her interview with the postmistress of Hawthorn Village.

It wasn’t her way to be idle, especially now that she returned home. A soft breeze stirred the leaves and the sweet scent of scythed grass felt like freedom as she made her way to the post office. Last night’s rain left a few puddles to be avoided. Crossing over Chadwick Lane the road widened, and she continued until once again on dry ground.

Several folks were queued up in front of the post office waiting for it to open; hours were from nine until three. She checked her watch pinned to the jacket of her day dress. It was 8:28. She had two minutes.

Mrs. Teaberry, on the lookout for her, opened the front door to a gush of questions from the folks standing in line.

“Earlier than usual ain’tcha, mistress?” Suspicion scratching the man’s words.

“All’s I need are to get these sent off, Mrs. Teaberry,” begged a woman, wrapped in a shawl, her arms full of packages.

Mrs. Teaberry’s strident tone set the crowd back. “It’s not nine. You’ll just have to wait.” She beckoned to Brianna. “This way, Miss Walsh.”

Challenged by several larger men in front of her, Brianna squished past them into the slight opening. Which immediately shut and locked by Mrs. Teaberry to a chorus of disgruntled folks.

“They think the moment the door opens I’m available. I take it your aunt explained why I wanted to talk to you?”

Mrs. Teaberry led them through a corridor and into a large room where the business of the post office took place. Brianna had been on the other side of the half wall numerous times. It looked well organized and should be easy to navigate through a day’s work.

Brianna nodded. “Yes, ma’am. She mentioned sorting mail.”

Mrs. Teaberry’s eyes narrowed. “Well, that will be one of your duties. I believe you will catch on rather quickly. I’ve known you since you were a sprite. You were an impressive lass and forthright about your objectives.”

Mrs. Teaberry’s unusual compliment eased Brianna’s nerves.

The postmistress asked, “It’s necessary for you to be tested in writing and arithmetic. Seeing as how you’ve been an assistant governess these past years, I see no reason to test you. Can you start this morning? I’ll be near if you have questions. Your position will be as clerk.”

Brianna loosened the ribbon on her bonnet and began taking off her gloves. “Yes, ma’am. That will be fine.”

“Pegs for your use are on that wall.” She inclined her head toward the corner of the room. “There is an apron on the other hook, and sleeve guards in the drawer. You’ll need them to protect your gown.” She checked her watch. “We’ve fifteen minutes for me to acquaint you with the window.”

They returned to the foyer that had been transformed into a lobby with a wall built across the middle space. A wide window casing in the wall, no doubt for accepting out-going mail and payments. Cubby holes lined the backwall where incoming mail would be filed for pickup.

Mrs. Teaberry pointed out. “As you can see, this is our worktable where we weigh packages to determine the cost of mailing them.” She tapped a big black book. “And this ledger is where we make note of money received and expenses incurred. You must always do this immediately upon receipt in order for our debits and credits to balance.”

She pointed to a tin box under the counter. “All money received will go in there. I do the accounting every evening.”

Mrs. Teaberry further explained, “The post office closes at three each day, and tea breaks are taken at that time. Saturday is a half day. We are closed Sundays, and holidays. At 3:30, if the coach is on time, newly arrived mail needs to be filed in the cubbies. That brings the workday to an end at 5:00. But, of course, you won’t be involved in the afternoon work of the post office.”

As Mrs. Teaberry finished with Brianna’s quick tour, Lionel Murphy, the rural messenger, entered the foyer from the kitchen area. He trod the same route each day, delivering mail to villagers living more than two miles out of town.

Mrs. Teaberry, on the verge of introducing them, when Lionel spoke up. “We know each other from church, ma’am.” He gave Brianna a nod.

“Miss Walsh is to be one of us now. She’ll work at the window three mornings a week.”

Lionel’s long thin face and bushy eyebrows bunched up into a smile of sorts. “Welcome to the General Post Office of the United Kingdom, established in one form or another almost two hundred—”

“That’s enough Lionel. We are due to open the front door in four minutes and I am still familiarizing Miss Walsh to her duties.”

He nodded and returned to the kitchen.

Mrs. Teaberry whispered. “He likes to quote the history of the United Kingdom’s postal services to anyone who will stand still for a moment.”

Mrs. Teaberry glanced at her watch and said, “Two minutes yet. You and your aunt have mailed back and forth, so you know about the Uniform Penny Post that started in January of this year. The charge is 1d for a prepaid letter and 2d if the fee is collected from the recipient. And I’m sure you know about Penny Black. Our allotment of stamps hasn’t arrived yet. I’m assured they will be soon in coming.

“But until they arrive, you will need to stamp each post with this…” she reached over Brianna and pulled out a stamp pad of ink and a stamp with a wooden knob on the top. “This one is for prepaid, and the other is for the post to be paid by the recipient.” She turned it upside down. “See the payment due?

At Brianna’s nod, she replaced the pad and the wooden stamps.

She glanced at her watch and said, “Here we go.”

Brianna felt as if a dam was about to open.

Mrs. Teaberry unlatched the front door, and Brianna girded herself for her first customer. The postmistress stood to the side of the window allowing Brianna to stand at the opening for customers.

The man with the scratchy vocal cords asked, “How long will it take for a letter to reach my son in Scotland, Edinburgh.”

Mrs. Teaberry pulled out a sheet of paper with numbers on it and handed it to Brianna putting her fingertip on the approximate time it would take to arrive in Scotland.

Brianna answered the man, “It looks like it will take seven to ten days, sir.”

He nearly asked his next question when Mrs. Teaberry poked her head in front of the window and said, “Are you all set, Mr. Simmons?”

Startled at her head popping out the window, he blinked. “Um, yes. Well, no. Is it 1d to go all the way to Edinburgh?”

“One penny now, or two pence when delivered. As long as it doesn’t exceed a half ounce.” Her arm snaked out the window and snapped up the letter and pushed it at Brianna to weigh it.

He impatiently tapped his fingers on the sill. Brianna returned with the post. “Just a fraction under, ma’am.”

Mrs. Teaberry moved back from the window. “Well then, get on with the transaction.”

The rest of the morning came in quick succession with lulls and then several customers at once. Two women, friends of Aunt Natty’s, knew Brianna had newly arrived home after several years. They were curious about Dundalk and the family for whom she worked. Brianna gently pried them away from questions about her last three years before Mrs. Teaberry popped her head in front of the window again and ordered them to get on with business or leave.

It was going to take Mrs. Teaberry some time to feel comfortable with her handling the window. The woman certainly ran an efficient office and challenged idle gossip, and most likely had answered the same questions hundreds of times.

So far, she hadn’t erred. But the morning was just begun. She drew in a determined breath. Demonstrating her capabilities and her worth was important.

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