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1864 - Suddenly left as the head of the family, Kitty McKenzie must find her inner strength to keep her family together against the odds. Evicted from their resplendent home in the fashionable part of York after her parents’ deaths, Kitty must fight the legacy of bankruptcy and homelessness to secure a home for her and her siblings. Through sheer willpower and determination she grabs opportunities with both hands from working on a clothes and rag stall in the market to creating a teashop for the wealthy. Her road to happiness is fraught with obstacles of hardship and despair, but she refuses to let her dream of a better life for her family die. She soon learns that love and loyalty brings its own reward.
York, England, November 1864
From an upstairs window, Katherine McKenzie looked out over York’s rooftops into the distance. The pale grey clouds parted, allowing weak sunshine to filter through the bare trees and banish the gloom. Below, two weighty men filled the back of a wagon with the furniture from the house. Her gaze shifted to linger on the sorry cluster of her brothers and sisters. Ranging in age from sixteen to two years old, they stood as one on the lush lawn with their small carryalls placed neatly in front of them. Their pale faces peeking out from beneath hats showed little emotion while stern-looking men came and went from their once warm and happy home. Of course, there was no evidence of that now.
Kitty leaned her forehead against the cool glass and fought the tears that gathered as she stared sightlessly down at her remaining family. All morning, the children had watched and listened as strangers invaded each room, taking notes and sizing up all the possessions once important to the family. They understood little of what was happening, but she had told them to wait outside while she and Rory sorted everything out. So, her brothers and sisters, shocked and confused, did as she instructed, not daring to talk about what they saw. Talking would come later.
Inhaling deeply to calm herself, Kitty turned away from the window. Downstairs a variety of men roamed about, murmuring in hushed voices, making notes on what was left to take and how much money each item would bring.
Vultures, that’s what Rory called them, but Kitty knew it was all about the cycle of life. She had learned a lot about life in the last few weeks. None of it very encouraging, but nevertheless, it had to be endured.
She sighed, rubbing the back of her neck, stiff with strain. The enormity of what faced her left her cold. Responsibilities had never been hers. There had always been others to care for her comfort. Could she do it? Could she steer the children through this difficult time? As her parents coffins were lowered into the ground, she promised them she’d keep the family together at all costs. She’d do whatever it took to keep her remaining family safe. As the eldest it was her duty to look after them, but secretly she wondered who would look after her.
Hearing shouts coming from below, she left her parents’ empty bedroom and hurried across the landing and down the main red- carpeted staircase.
In the hall, a small gathering watched as two so-called gentlemen wrangled over a large Chinese-painted vase on which each held a firm grip. Making her way to them, Kitty did her best to be polite, even though her anger simmered like a kettle on the stovetop. “Gentlemen, please. What is the problem?”
A large bearded man turned his florid face to Kitty. His knuckles turned white as his grip tightened on the vase. “Miss McKenzie, this man is insistent it belongs to him when in actual fact it is reserved for my services rendered.”
The man’s breath reeked of alcohol and the fumes washed over her in sickly waves.
“That is a downright lie!” The other man’s beady eyes glared at his opponent. “It says here on my itinerary this particular vase is awarded to my company.”
Kitty ached to be released from this nightmare. Today marked the end of her family’s lives as they knew it, and not one of these vultures cared enough to be the least sympathetic. Taking a step closer to the two warring men, Kitty smiled with false sweetness. “I may be of assistance then.” Without hesitation, she took the vase out of their hands and dropped it onto the hall’s marble floor. The shattering porcelain silenced everyone’s chatter and the two men gasped in unison.
“There now, gentlemen, no more need to argue over it.” With the last of her dignity and her head held high, she strode down the hall and into the kitchen.
A warmer atmosphere prevailed in the kitchen, as no debt collectors lingered here. A small fire burned in the range and Mrs Flowers, the cook, brewed a pot of tea. Unpaid for many weeks, the kind woman had stayed until the end to help Kitty and the children through this difficult time.
Sitting on an overlooked stool, Kitty smiled gratefully as the older woman gave her a cup of tea.
“How’s it goin’ in there, miss?” The cook nodded in the direction of the front end of the house.
“Dreadful,” Kitty answered with a sigh, pushing back a stray strand of hair from her face.
Mrs Flowers stirred the milk on the stove in readiness to make hot cocoa for the children. “‘Tis indeed a sorry time. Thank the Lord your dear mother didn’t live to see this day, it would have broken her heart.” A wistful look crossed her face.
Kitty refrained from commenting. She blamed both of her parents for letting their financial affairs fall into such a state. Now she and Rory must mend the damage. She had adored her parents, but their loving and generous natures not only cost them their lives, but their children’s future and happiness. Her parent’s inability to manage their funds over the years now left tradesmen and merchants braying for their dues. Now, at nearly twenty-one, she was responsible for not only herself, but also for six family members.
The outside door to the kitchen banged back against the wall. Rory marched in, his usually handsome face red with anger and his blue eyes blazing. “Do you know what that pompous ass, O’Brien, thinks the horses are worth?”
“No, and neither do I care.” Kitty wiped her hand over her eyes. Tiredness stung them. “It will not make any difference to us as we’ll not see a penny.”
“Father spent good money on them,” Rory defended the animals he adored.
Kitty shot up from her seat, knocking the stool over. Thumping her fist on the table, she glared at her brother. “Well, if Father had not spent good money on them and other non-essential things, we’d not be in the trouble we are.”
Taken aback by her outburst, Rory’s temper rapidly dissipated and he hung his head. “I’m sorry, Kitty. You are right, of course. None of it is ours anymore and so it doesn’t matter a jot. I’m just heart sorry to say goodbye to them, that is all.”
“I know.” She nodded, knowing the shock of all that happened in the last few weeks had not yet taken effect. Losing their parents so unexpectedly not only devastated them, but frightened them too. Then, to learn on the day of the funeral that they must relinquish their home and possessions caused even greater upset. They lived in terror for weeks waiting for this day. No friend or distant relative came to pluck them away from this horrid ordeal.
“Here, Master Rory, will you be kind enough to take this cocoa out to the young ones? They’ll be ready for it by now,” Mrs Flowers said with motherly attention. “I’ve to be gone in a few minutes to catch the coach.”
Rory left, balancing a tray of steaming cups of hot cocoa, and while Mrs Flowers cleaned up, Kitty went back through the hall to have one more look around her home. The vultures had gone at last. Silence descended like a winter’s mist.
In her mind’s eye, Kitty could still see the crystal chandeliers. She ran her fingers along the expensive timber panelling and silk wallpaper, which decorated each room of the large house. She toured the drawing room, parlour, front sitting room and library. Laughter and music of previous parties rang in her ears. Her mother was renowned for filling the house with exciting and interesting people. Kitty saw it all as it once was, not as it was now, a combination of cold, empty rooms. She turned to go upstairs just as a wagon driver caught her attention from the front door.
“Excuse me, Miss. This fell out of one of the cupboards when we moved it. I thought you’d like to have it.” He held out a framed painting of her parents on their wedding day.
“Thank you.” Kitty smiled at him and, doffing his cap, he went on his way.
Left alone once more, she gazed down at her parents as they innocently stared at her from their picture. Her father, Jonathan McKenzie, tall and proud in his wedding suit stood behind his new bride, who sat straight and dignified on a chair a little to the left of him. Both Jonathan and Eliza McKenzie had found true love and never hesitated to show it to each other or anyone else. For twenty-two years their love and contentment wrapped a web of happiness around not only themselves but also their whole household. The McKenzie family once held an esteemed position in the community with money, handsome looks, good health and a beautiful house full of children.
The only thing lacking was prudence concerning their finances.
Her mother inherited a large sum of money after the death of her grandmother. Jonathan trained as a doctor, but instead of opening a practice for wealthy clients he preferred to attend the unfortunates of York. Soon enough, Mother’s money ran out. Consequently, they borrowed heavily with the bank, hoping a rich bachelor uncle of Jonathan’s would pass away and leave Father, as his heir, his fortune. As luck would have it though, the rich uncle still lived and enjoyed his fortune, while her parents became mired in debt and then died premature deaths.
Was it merely four short weeks ago that her father, after visiting patients in the slums, had unwittingly brought death home? Kitty shivered at the memory of how fast the Typhoid took him, her mother and little sister, Davina, just four years old.
The day after their funerals, the collectors of debts, both large and small, came to give her their bills. Father’s solicitor, Mr Daniels came to her aid and advised her on the best course of action. Unfortunately, the only solution left was to sell everything. Now they weren’t only homeless, but also poor, desperately poor.
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