For as long as Rebekah could remember September had been a month of terror, with her mother growing shorter and shorter of temper as each day passed. Then Michaelmas would come and they would stand in line at The Hiring, hoping against hope that they would catch the eye of someone kindly and decent. They almost always did, except for one memorably bad year when both mother and eight-year-old daughter toiled in the kitchens of a back-street whorehouse for little more than a hard bed and even harder words. It was only one year in the seventeen Rebekah had been alive, but the memory was strong enough to strike fear into a stronger heart than hers.
This Michaelmas was different, though. Mother had been hired for three years running by the same man, a grim-visaged merchant with an out-thrusting paunch and a hard eye for a bargain. Rebekah didn’t much like him, but kept her thoughts to herself. At least the beds were dry and there was sufficient food.
At the start of the September after her seventeenth birthday, their employer called Mother into his narrow counting room, where the pair of them had remained closeted for a very long time.
Mother came out looking even grimmer than usual. Rebekah hunched a shoulder and awaited a tongue-lashing. To her surprise none was forthcoming. Instead, Mother beckoned her out into the tiny strip of garden they tended throughout the year. She sat down heavily on the wooden bench and patted the seat by her side.
“Daughter. I would have speech with you.”
Rebekah tried to look suitably interested and yet modest.
“Mister Brown had a proposition for me. It is one I am minded to accept, but it depends on you.”
“How is that Mother?”
“He proposes marriage to me, but he will not adopt you as his daughter.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that if I accept the offer, you cannot stay here.”
“Oh. But where would I go.”
“You could go to the hiring. Or you could marry.”
“You are young, and strong, and accustomed to hard work. There are always young farmers looking for girls like you.”
“You mean like a mail order bride?”
Rebekah bent her fair head, thinking hard. She turned a serene face to her mother.
“If I chose to be a mail order bride, would I have any say in which offer I accepted.”
Her mother frowned.
“You would if you wanted, but why would you want such a choice?”
“Mother. I am seventeen years old, it would not be fitting were I to find myself married to a man with children older than me. And nor would I wish to wed outside of our faith. If those are not unreasonable expectations I would choose to marry.”
Her mother regarded Rebekah with rare approval. “Not unreasonable. Sensible. Very well, child, Mister Brown and I will set things in motion. You do understand that naught will occur until after the Michaelmas Hiring.”
“I do so understand, Mother.”
Mother stood up and then bent to place a rare kiss on her daughter’s smooth cheek.
“I will make sure that your husband is kind.”
Then she was gone, leaving Rebekah to return to her duties with a calm face, but a very flustered mind.
The weeks leading up to The Hiring ran smoothly, with Mother settled and Rebekah resigned.
On the day of the Michaelmas Fair, Mother and Mister Brown went out straight after breakfast, leaving Rebekah on her honour not to leave the house. They need not have worried, as she had precious little taste for the noise and laxity of the street fair and no coin to spend had it been her wish to venture out. Instead, she brought her spinning wheel beside the kitchen fire and sat singing quietly as she worked. The only other living creature in the house was the kitchen cat who came and sat on the floor at her feet. It was about two hours before the street door opened and Mother’s voice called out.
“It is us, Rebekah, put the kettle to boil like a good child.” She sounded happy, and Rebekah hastened to move the kettle onto the hot plate atop the closed stove.
She returned her spinning wheel to the corner and quickly swept up the little bits of wool that flew from the wheel. She was just wondering what to do next when Mother and Mister Brown came into the kitchen. He regarded her sternly, and looked around the room for signs of disorder. Finding none, he so far relaxed as to smile, although no warmth reached his hard little eyes. Mother lifted her left hand, and Rebekah saw the gleam of gold. She cast down her eyes, lest anyone see her dismay.
“My felicitations Mister and Mistress Brown. May your union be long and blessed.”
She looked up to find both beaming at her. She must have said the right thing. Mister Brown even unbent enough to address her directly.
“Fairly spoken, girl,” then he coughed. “You must understand that my refusal to adopt you is no reflection on your character. For all I have seen you are a modest and hardworking female.”
Rebekah bent her head, and Mother actually chuckled.
“The child is unused to compliments.” Then she turned her attention to her daughter. “There are three offers for your hand that we deem suitable. It appears fair to both my husband and I that you should select from them for yourself. Sit at the table and read. I will make hot tea.”
Rebekah sat, feeling as if she dreamed, and her mother’s husband placed three packets at her elbow.
“We have,” he said in a surprisingly careful voice, “ascertained that these three men have a reputation for kindliness as well as being suitable in all other ways”.
Rebekah read the three letters carefully.