I do not remember my parents well, which is rather a contrivance to say that my recollections of them are both fleeting and uncomplimentary. It is the Grande Dame, Miss Dori Dudley of Tillman, to whom I owe thanks for the quality of my rearing and coincident instruction. My parents had died during Jormund’s Rebellion and, like many such children, I was taken thence to the nearest orphanage, which lay at Tillman. I shall spare you the details of orphan life, as there is naught to be gained by disclosing them. After all, I was content enough simply to be counted among the living. But as to the general disposition of life at the orphanage, it needs must suffice to say that the living was indeed hard.
Upon my twelfth summer I was obliged to take my leave of the orphanage which, while I was glad to be quit of the place, I was also discouraged as I had no gainful prospects for my future. My sense of discouragement won me no reprieve, however; so I spent Midsummer Day packing a select few of my sparse accoutrements into a knapsack. After a final meal, I said my farewells to some of the girls and spent my last night there, reflecting upon my fortunes, both good and ill. There was no breaking of my fast in the morning. The meager victuals were reserved for the remaining children. I was being “turned out”. The orphanage staff had nothing for me, so out I set.
I encountered significant difficulty procuring employment. Over the previous several years many orphaned children had sought to acquire work in various and sundry parts of the town. Available positions were few and competition was fierce. One of the ‘turn-out’ boys, Timothy – a rare boy with likeable qualities – was beaten for presenting himself for a crier position that another boy wanted. I saw him – his face and his body broken – left for dead behind the greengrocer’s on Wagoner Street. I spent an hour trying to find someone willing to tend him without success. When I returned to check on his condition, the flies had him. Mind you, it was not the first dead child I had seen. The sweating pox had taken fourteen children the second winter I spent at the orphanage. Nor would it be the last. But I will admit that I cried for little Timsy.
I eventually succeeded in finding work, though it required me to leave the town proper to find it. Less than an hours’ walk from the northern gate, situated astride Robbett’s Creek, a watermill known as Topper’s Mill is within the environs. I made application there and was accepted. The pay was a pittance as my accommodation there at the mill required the bulk of my salary; the hours were long, also, but the mill operated only every other day. On the days when the mill was not operating, I would spend half a day making ready for the following day’s labors. It was while engaged thus that I made an acquaintance of the various bakers in Tillman who frequented the mill and purchased its grain. I was soon asked to help in one of Tillman’s bakeries, which supplemented my small earnings. It was a hard life, but it was a life. I had even acquired some skill at trade. I was surviving, and without outside agency, which made it all the better. I was always near exhaustion and my board was poor, but I was indebted to none, which gave me some measure of contentment. Over the next three years I worked, dividing my time between the mill and the bakery. Over time, my duties at the bakery increased, and while I derived no financial benefit, the bakery work was easier and this improved my lot.
This was when I met Miss Dori Dudley – the Grand Dame of Tillman she is called, and rightly so. She took a liking to me immediately, and I to her. She was of a pleasant mien, and though in her middle years, she was still an exceptional beauty. When I inquired after her, I was told that she was married to a relation of the old Baron, but her husband had died while their marriage was still young. Some say that he died whispering her name. If that is true, I find that such a romantic story! I was pleased to learn that our bakery did a great deal of business with Miss Dudley. She was not always disposed to conducting business on her own behalf, but it was clear to see that she enjoyed seeing to her own dealings, and furthermore that she was singularly shrewd at trade, as no one was able to match her skill at bargaining. I admired her and even summoned the courage upon one occasion to tell her so. Rather than admonish me for my insolence, she returned to me the most amusing smile. I vouchsafe that to have received such attention from someone of such society thrilled me. I must have smiled for a week!
It was not long after this that I was informed by my employer that Miss Dudley wished to meet with me at her very own estate. I’ll not fatigue you with the details of the many preparations I endured as I endeavored to make myself a fitting guest. But what most occupied my mind was that I had received little to no schooling; I scarcely even earned enough to buy more than my own bread, but in such times as those I counted myself lucky. No amount of luck, however, would compensate for all my shortcomings. Besides, I thought, Miss Dudley has met me already and knows I am a simple bakery girl. Too much effort to appear above my station might have been taken for mockery. So, I prepared myself as best as I was able, and went to meet her. At once, I was awed by her estate, by her strong and handsome servants, but most of all by the Grande Dame, herself. Though not noble, she had wealth and power, and had once been married to nobility. She possessed, then, a noble demeanor, but being technically common, she was obliged to be somewhat at ease with others of common blood.
As it turned out, the bakery where I worked owed a great deal of money to Miss Dudley, a fact that Miss Dudley told me in confidence. She asked me how well I liked my employer and my work. I answered her honestly, saying that the work was hard but rewarding; and the baker, while kind to me and as fair an employer as I could hope for, did not hold me in any great esteem. All-in-all, I was hard-pressed, but well-contented. I was certainly faring better than Timsy, poor little lad. Despite the intensity of my labors and the paltry state of my board, I had many blessings to count and marked them often. Hearing this, she simply smiled that winsome smile of hers and I blushed terribly which made her giggle.
Miss Dudley then came to the reason she had extended to me the invitation. She was considering proposing to my employer that if he would allow her to take me into her service, she would count his debt to her as paid-in-full. I was quite excited by this as I felt a great deal of gratitude toward the man, and if by agreeing to this it would be a boon to him I could hardly refuse. I was all the more excited when Miss Dudley explained that she would also pay for the best schooling available in the barony, she would see to what she called a more proper wardrobe, and many more benefits, besides. I felt as if I were in some sort of dream! Of course I gave my assent with all haste, and within a fortnight I was removed thence to Miss Dudley’s own estate, given my own apartments therein, measured for garments, shoes, hats – it was a dream coming true!
It has been nigh unto ten years since then, and I have done well in my studies. Miss Dudley has also taught me much of her business. I have become quick with letters and sums, and Miss Dudley says that I am showing quite an aptitude for trade. She has even lately been showing me some of her accounts so that I might come to grasp first-hand how she conducts her affairs. Furthermore, I have met a good many of the finest gentlemen in the barony, many of them lords and wealthy merchants. I have rejected many suitors, even among those selfsame lords and merchants, because Miss Dudley has made for me many gainful prospects and my future is as bright as the Grande Dame’s playful smile. What need have I for a husband to provide for me? I will not be kept. I will be my own keeper.