Authors: Deborah Swift
Tags: #17th Century, #Fiction - Historical, #England/Great Britain
Copyright © 2014 by Deborah Swift
All rights reserved.
Published 2014 by CreateSpace
Deborah Swift has asserted her rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
First published in 2014 by Endeavour Press Ltd.
And still of a winter’s night, they say, when the wind is in the trees,
When the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
A highwayman comes riding—
A highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door.
I knew why they sent me instead of Elizabeth to Markyate Manor, though they thought I hadn’t understood.
When Ralph asked Mother, I saw her lips say, ‘They can’t afford Elizabeth.’
If they whisper their mouths make the shapes even more clearly than when they just talk. And I’m deaf, not stupid. I listen with my eyes, that’s all.
On the day I was to go, Mother walked me the six miles over to the Manor, to make sure I got there. When she caught me dawdling she grabbed my hand in her dry calloused one to tow me along. Our feet left dark footprints in the dew as we went and my cloth bag thumped against my legs as Mother’s breath puffed out a rhythm of white in the chill, early-morning air.
We crossed the rutted highway to Wheathamstead, checking first for bands of soldiers. Cromwell’s unruly troops often used this route and they’d trodden it into mulch. On Nomansland Common a cow rubbed its bony backside on the empty stocks and the starlings flew up away from the hedge with a smatter of wings. As the sun rose higher Mother speeded her step, leaning into the journey as if she could not be there quick enough. I clutched the stitch in my stomach.
Markyate Manor slowly solidified out of the morning mist, growing grander with every step, until it swelled over us with its towering red-brick chimneys. My breath caught in my throat. It was enormous. I’d get lost in there. Mother gave my arm another tug and pulled me out of sight of the front door, her head bent, skirting the corner of the house. I tilted my neck back, trying to see the top of the domed turrets but Mother frowned at me, ‘Quick! We’ll be late.’
Past glazed windows which seemed to hold no reflections, past ivy hanging away from the walls. Where was everybody? There was not a soul to be seen. At the peeling back door Mother jerked on a green metal handle, I imagined a distant bell.
We waited. I wiped my face with my sleeve; I was hot from all the hurrying and it wouldn’t do to look unpresentable. The door opened and Mother pushed me on ahead. In the gloom my foot stubbed on a trunk and I had to reach out a hand to the wall to steady myself. The agitated young woman who had let us in had her gloves on already, the drawstring of her cloak was tied up tight around her neck, and all her bags stood in the hall.
‘I’m Mrs. Chaplin and this is Abigail,’ Mother said.
‘Henshaw, that was the maid,’ the woman said, and sniffed, as if I smelt bad. ‘The wagon will be here any moment, so I won’t wait.’ Her words were clipped, as if she was biting them off, so I had no trouble reading them.
I knew from the maid’s expression that Mother said something in reply, but Mother was behind me so by the time I whipped round, I’d missed it.
‘Lady Fanshawe knows she’s coming, doesn’t she?’ Henshaw said, squeezing past us so that we had t
o flatten ourselves to the wall. ‘So I’ll not wait to give an introduction.’
‘But what about the other staff, will the Lady not –’ Mother stopped speaking abruptly and I was just
in time to see the maid’s words: ‘Other staff? What other staff? There’s only the cook indoors, and the grooms in the yard. No one else will stay.’
We watched Henshaw drag her trunk bumpety-bump down the step.
‘The housemaid,’ Mother explained to me from habit, though I had understood well enough. ‘She’s the housemaid that’s leaving.’
Mother’s face wrinkled in consternation.
She tapped me briskly on the arm and set off down a long shadowy back corridor. At each open door she peered inside, searching for a sign of life. She was as nervous as I was. I could tell by the way she had one hand clamped tight to the neck of her shawl as if it might take fright and fly off. Finally I smelt something cooking and put my hand on her shoulder.
‘Down there,’ I whispered, pointing down some servant’s stairs.
Mother prodded me to go ahead of her. The stairs wound to the left and at the bottom I followed my nose and found my way into a vast kitchen. The cook spun round from where she was bending over a pot on the fire, her spoon dripping white lumps onto the flagstone floor.
‘You gave me a start,’ she said.
She was thin as a splinter, her apron strings tied twice round her skinny middle. She turned back to the fire and the cooking, but I could see she was talking by the way her back moved like a bellows.
Mother turned me by the shoulders to mouth at me, ‘She’s the cook. I’m to leave you here, she’ll show you to your bedchamber.’ She mimed ‘sleep’ with her hands pressed palms together next to her ear, as though I had become a child again.
I nodded, but my mouth trembled as I smiled at her. Now I’d come to it, I didn’t want Mother to go home without me.
She kissed me hard on both cheeks as if to stamp the kiss into my skin. ‘I’ll send Ralph in a few days to see how you’re faring. Do as you’re told, and make sure you ask if you don’t understand.’
Her face crumpled as she picked up her skirts to go out, but she turned away in the gesture she always used when she didn’t want me to see her expression.
I wanted to shout after her, ‘Don’t le
ave me here, take me home again!’ But of course I didn’t. I just gave a sort of wave. The skinny cook by the fire kept on stirring, and I watched Mother’s familiar sturdy back and then her frayed hem and then the iron soles of her clogs disappear up the stairs.
I stood in the kitchen next to my small holdall and looked about. You could see there were no servants because everything was filthy. A long rack hung the length of the chamber with dusty cooking pans dangling there. Strings of cobwebs swayed from the ceiling to the rack. By the fireplace squatted two ancient barrels of the sort for salted fish or meat, but they couldn’t have been used for a while because everything was covered in soot fallen from the chimney.
A sudden movement alerted me to the fact that I was being talked to, or should I say, at, because the cook was obviously angry. She snatched the pot from the fire and dumped it on the hearth so that the porridge sloshed over the edge. I caught something about it being ‘spoiled’ before she gestured at me to bring my bag.
Up the stairs she marched, and I leapt to do as she asked, following her like a scared whippet, fascinated by her grey greasy plait that swung from under the flap of her bonnet. Up, up, up
– to the top of the house, along passages dark with panelling, watched by old portraits of men in ruffs and images of the Virgin Mary with her sad weeping face.
Finally we arrived at a tiny box-room with a slit of an eye for a window. The bed was a bare wooden trestle with a straw mattress, the walls plain whitewash. Worse than at home, I thought. At least our house was clean. I set my bag down on the bed and looked around for a candle-holder, but there was none. My stomach turned a somersault. If there was one thing I hated, it was the dark.
The cook pointed to herself. ‘Mistress Binch.’ I bobbed a curtsey like I was supposed to. She stared as if surprised, but then decided it displeased her. ‘Stop dawdling and get out your apron,’ she said. Her mouth was small as a hen’s bottom and it was hard to read her, but I opened up my bag and drew out one of my cover-alls and held it up with a questioning look.
The cook nodded, satisfied, then gestured for me to follow again, and off we marched doing the whole journey backwards with me tying my strings round my waist as we went. In the kitchen she passed me a tray with a bowl of the congealed porridge. Her thin hand slapped a hunk of bread and butter next to it and a pot of honey. Was it for me, I wondered? I was hungry. But no, Mistress Binch was gesturing at me to follow again.
She stopped outside an imposing door on a long corridor and waited for me to knock. The door had no give, it was solid under my knuckles as though I was rapping on the trunk of a tree. I had no idea if anybody answered, but Mistress Binch seemed to think they had, as she nodded at me and turned to go in response. I twisted the brass handle and pushed hard on the door with my hip. It swung open.
It was as though I had suddenly shrunk. Another lofty room. Down the centre ran a long board for dining, and I counted twelve chairs but none were occupied. The floor was strewn with dusty, crumbling herbs that caught in my hem as I walked. Uncertain, I put the tray down on the table. What should I do if there was no-one here to eat the porridge? I couldn’t take it back. Mistress Binch would be angry. I leant a hand on the table to anchor me in the big space and stared round.
The room was still. I plucked up courage to cross the empty space to the window. There was an oak tree not far from the house, with a girth the size of a wagon wheel. I looked out beyond it to where our house must be, somewhere past the common, hidden by the tree and a scrub of woodland. Mother would be hurrying home. There would be no husband to welcome her. Father had been lost in a skirmish in Scotland, fighting for Parliament.
I wished I was back there now, to help Mother churn the butter, and to hear her tell my brother Ralph he was not driving the oxen right. Everyone had to work so hard since we lost our house. But I did not want to think of that, it hurt too much. I stood a while, fiddling with edge of my neckerchief, my head cocked to one side as if I might hear them, hear anyone.
Maybe I should take the porridge back. I turned, and there, sat at the table, was a young woman, watching me through narrowed curious eyes. The bowl was already empty.
‘I suppose you’re Chaplin,’ she said, waving her spoon. Then, speaking very slowly and deliberately as if to a simpleton, ‘Curtsey, if you please.’
My face grew hot. I did as she asked, but did not dip my head. I kept my eyes fixed on her mouth.
‘Can you understand me?’ She did not wait for my answer. ‘Tell Binch the porridge was cold. Cold. And light a fire in the yellow chamber. It’s in the west wing. A fire. West wing.’
‘Yes, m’lady. And speak up.’
I repeated it. My heart thumped in my chest. This surely couldn’t be Lady Katherine, could it? I was expecting someone much older. This flame-haired girl was probably only sixteen or seventeen – a year or two older than I. But of course she had that manner they all have, of looking at you as if you are a long way off and not right under their noses.
When I got nearer I saw her lace cuffs needed a good wash. But I d
id not dare get a proper look. I slid the tray away and hurried out of the door. Just being near her made me nervous – the way she’d appeared from nowhere like a ghost.
In the kitchen the fire had dwindled to an ashy glow, and the pot stood on the hearth untouched. There was no sign of Mistress Binch. I wondered if there was time to eat that porridge. My stomach growled with hunger.
In the end I did not have the courage. There was nobody to show me what to do. Panicky in case I should be slow, and the girl displeased, I grabbed a pail from by the kitchen door and ran outside to search for the coal cellar and the wood store.
I lugged the full bucket down a maze of corridors, sensing the weight of the house, all that masonry, pressing down above my head. I had to find the west wing. I knew the sun rose in the east so it had to be on the opposite side of the house.
Luckily, I felt the draught of a door opening and caught a glimpse of a green silk skirt as the girl disappeared into one of the rooms. I followed, panting. The bucket made my arms ache.
It was a library or study. The girl’s eyes rested on me the whole time as I knelt in front of the fireplace. Then I realised. This small bucket would not be enough to fill this grate, would it?
I’d been used to our little fire at home, not to making great bonfires like this. Still, I got it lit, and it took. The girl sat a long way away from it on a cushioned chair, with a writing slope resting on her knee. I felt like telling her to stop watching me, and mind her own business, but of course I couldn’t, could I?
Instead, I stood and turned to face her, ready for more instructions. Because if she was the daughter of the house, I was determined to show her I was the best maidservant they’d ever had.
‘Fetch more coal and wood, and then make a start on the laundry. The buck tub is outside somewhere…near the dairy. The linen basket’s on the landing near my upper chamber.’ She was still speaking very slowly, though she had no need, hers was the kind of expressive face that showed every mood. Like the sky, with clouds passing over.
I nodded to show I’d understood.
‘When it’s done, come back here and wait by the door in case I need you again.’
She put down her writing slope and stood up to study me. ‘Can you hear me? They told me you were deaf.’
‘Yes m’lady, I mean no m’lady.’
Her brows furrowed in irritation. ‘Well which is it? Are you deaf or not?’
‘I can read lips m’lady.’
She raised her eyebrows and looked pleased. ‘Good. We’ll be able to talk. Mr Grice didn’t want me to have another servant whilst my husband’s away – he thinks it’s a waste of good money. But it’s so boring with no female company. And the house needs a good clean.’ I carried on watching in fascination, her rosy lips and little white teeth, unable to look away just in case she had more to say. ‘Well, what are you waiting for?’
That was me dismissed. She sat back down with her paper and quill
and began to write.