Authors: Sullivan Clarke
By Sullivan Clarke
Copyright 2012 Blushing Books and Sullivan Clarke
Copyright 2012 Sullivan Clarke & Blushing Books
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Ella Carter gripped the handle of her suitcase and stepped closer to the edge of the platform, craning her neck as she eyed the line of cars and carts coming approaching the platform. All around her were happy reunions - friends, relatives, lovers. Train stations were such happy places.
This was the second train ride she’d taken in her twenty-five years. The first was to Brighton, where her parents had moved when she was just three years old and they’d gone to serve in Lord Chatworth’s fine home. Before that they’d served Lord Norman Chatworth’s brother, Sir Richard Chatworth. But her parents’ marriage four years earlier had caused complications among the staff - petty jealousies had arisen among some of the other maids, all of whom had secretly desired Malcolm Carter before he’d set his sites on pretty blonde apprentice cook Louise Jennings. After several years of watching his fair wife suffer from the backbiting, Malcolm had gone to Sir Chatworth and informed him that the conditions were unlikely to change. Women, he said, would be women and it would be easier for his family to start anew somewhere else than it would for all the other maids to be replaced, even if they were in the wrong.
“I’d rather lose the lot of them than part with my best valet,” Sir Chatworth had insisted. “And if I cannot stop you from going, the least I can do is keep you in the family.” the Carters had been sent to serve with Chatworth’s brother.
Ella had grown up thinking of herself not just as a Carter, but as an extended member of the Chatworth family. Lady Miriam Chatworth had sons, but no daughters and adored her maid’s little girl, which she insisted upon seeing whenever Louise brought her to the house. Louise played with Lady Miriam’s sons, even though Lady Miriam’s visiting aunt once rebuked her for allowing the boys to mingle with “rabble.”
“What’s rabble?” she’d asked her mother later that night.
“It’s an unkind word that high-born people use to describe low-born ones,” her mother had said.
“Are we rabble, mummy?” Ella had asked
“There is no rabble, my dear. We all have parts to play,” her mother had said.
“Like a game? Like chess?”
Louisa had smiled. “Yes, like chess.”
“Daddy plays chess,” Ella had said. Sometimes in the evenings, he would play chess with Gibbs, the footman.
“Yes he does,” her mother had replied, and the pawn and the rook are as important to the game as the queen.
“Daddy says the rooks and pawns die trying to protect the queen,” Ella had observed.
“Perhaps,” Louise had observed, smoothing her daughter’s blonde hair. “But in the all the pieces go in the same box, don’t they? In the end, death claims us all. And we all come to our creator as equals. Never let anyone tell you there is no pride in service. Christ was a servant, after all.”
Her parents’ pride in service was heightened by the status of the family they served. Louise was still quite young when she discovered that even among servants there was a caste system of sorts. The servants of nobility were just as prone to scorn the maids of the upper middle class as the nobility were to scorn those on the lower rungs of the social ladder.
Ella was groomed for service at an early age. Her father taught her which wine to serve with meals and her mother taught her to serve tea and told her all the secrets for getting stains out of cloth, how to light a fire, and how to cook. But it was discretion that her parents considered the greatest skill.
“Learn early how to keep a secret, Ella,” her father had said. “Holding a confidence is the key to holding a job in one of these great houses.”
Ella started as a maid when she was fourteen. Like many of the other girls brought by parents who served the Chatworths, they were more educated than the children of parents who served those with less status. A good maid needed to be able to read to her mistress should she need to, Louise said. As Lady Chatworth’s maid, Ella’s mother often read to her employer while the other woman did needlepoint or prepared to fall asleep.
Ella didn’t realize until her teens that she was being groomed to be a lady’s maid. When her mother passed away when Ella was only seventeen, a devastated Lady Chatworth would hear of no one other than her beloved Louise’s daughter filling her shoes.
“She knows me almost as well as her mother,” Lady Chatworth had said. “And she is so like her. I cannot possibly entertain the notion of having any other serve me than Ella.”
So Ella had become Lady Chatworth’s maid, and the relationship they forged eased some of the pain of Ella’s loss. But as it had done with the Carter’s former employer so many years ago, jealousy now reared its head again. Ella’s eight years serving Lady Chatworth were marred by the obvious envy by one of the housekeepers, a seasoned and trusted servant who had vied unsuccessfully for the position that Ella would fill. The majority of the staff blamed Ella’s parents for - as they put it - shoving Ella at the lady of the house, although it had never been Louise’s intention for her daughter to succeed her, for they never expected Louise would die young. But Ella and her father, who had now risen to head butler, focused on their employers and ignored the gossip, even though Ella often felt very alone among her peers.
With Lady Chatworth she was happy. The woman would ask her maid’s opinion on matters and share confidences she shared with no one else, not even her husband. Ella soon found she was able to predict her lady’s moods and needs. She made herself indispensable through instinct and discretion. Lady Chatworth, whose sons were away at school, doted on her pretty maid and told her a dozen times a day how important she was.
“What would I ever do without my pretty little maid?” she asked with a smile whenever Ella stoked the fire or brought Lady Chatworth her reading specs or picked out just the right dress without being asked.
And Ella wondered what she’d do without Lady Chatworth in her life. Romantic prospects were few and far between, for her lady was nothing if not demanding. Whenever Ella did get a free day to go to town or take a walk, she found herself the object of admiring glances by footmen or chauffeurs or grooms, but as the maid of Lady Chatworth and the daughter of the stern house butler, Ella was intimidating to the young men who would have otherwise approached her.
“I shall die a spinster,” she laughed one day when Lady Chatworth inquired as to whether any young man had caught her eye.
“There are worse ways to die,” Lady Chatworth had said. “Besides, no man could care for you as well as we do. And take it from me, being married is no guarantee of love.”
Lady Chatworth had looked in the mirror as she’d made the pronouncement, her hand moving to the wrinkles by her eyes. “Once the bloom is off the bride, the man’s eye will wander to someone else.”
Ella had laid a comforting hand on her lady’s shoulder. It was no great secret that Lord Chatworth was unfaithful. Even though he tried to be discreet, those who shared the Chatworth’s status had little more to do than gossip, and Lord Chatworth’s exploits always found their way back to his long-suffering spouse.
“They may be a diversion, m’lady, but you’re his wife,” Ella had said, and Lady Chatworth had smiled.
“This is true, Ella,” she said. “And as long as I am you will always be with us.”
Those words had brought a wrench of pain to Ella’s heart just days earlier, when she’d stood in the chapel graveyard on the Chatworth’s estate, watching her mistress’s body being lowered into the ground. The illness that consumed her had been rapid; from the time Lady Chatworth felt the first nagging pain in her stomach to the day she died was a brief three months. Consumption, the doctor called it, and one of a particularly furious nature.
Ella had nursed her to the end, and the day before the funeral had been informed by her tearful father that Lord Chatworth had made reference for her to Lady Eleanor Baxter, the new bride of Lord Arthur Baxter.
“He wants shed of me, then?” Ella had said. “And we both know why. Lord Chatworth’s going to marry that wretched Sylvia Banks, isn’t he? And with my lady not even cold in her grave?” Ella had begun to sob, burying her face in her hands. Her father sat down beside her and placed a gloved hand on her shoulder.
“It is not our place to question. I, too, mourn our Lady. She was a good and gracious person, and next to your mother the finest I have ever known. I do not agree with Lord Chatworth’s flouting his mistress, nor do I agree with his decision to engage in a hasty marriage so close to his wife’s death. The new Lady Chatworth..”
“Don’t call her that, father…” Ella stood.
“Still your tongue, child. You’re still not too big to go over my knee.” His tone was gruff, and Ella turned to her father, apologetic.
“Forgive me,” she said.
“Lady Chatworth encouraged you too freely to speak you mind, child,” he said. “We may not like what has happened, but we are powerless to change it. Sylvia Banks will become the new Lady Chatworth, and will come with her own maid. But think on it, Ella, could you ever serve her with the love you had for her predecessor? Especially knowing that this woman betrayed her?”
“Papa,” Ella said quietly. “You always were the voice of reason. I just wish that I could have been consulted, rather than having Lord Chatworth move me to another position on another estate as if I were a chess piece.”
“Blame me, Ella, for I guided his hand,” her father said. “You are too good to be demoted to maid, and you’ve been the envy of the other ladies in the region for years. I attend the parties and dinners. I’ve heard other ladies complain of their maids even as our Lady talked you up so.” He smiled. “Your mother raised you well, girl.”
“I am the one who suggested that you would be suitable for Lady Baxter. She’s young, and newly married. But unlike the new Lady who will be living here, she comes to her husband pure and naïve. She is willful, apparently, and unschooled in the ways of ladies to some extend in spite of her breeding. It is said that her parents indulged her. You, being just a bit older than she can guide her based on what you know of ladies. You’ve always been persuasive. Lord Baxter is intent on having you, and I would see you continue your success. The Baxters are wealthier even than the Chatworths.”
“I don’t care for wealth,” she said.
“I know,” he replied. “But it matters, even among our kind, and it would do your father’s heart good to know you are safe. Do this for me, Ella. Please.”
She turned and hugged him. “Only for you, papa,” she said. “Only for you.”
It felt disorienting, being unanchored from all that she knew. And now as Ella watched the families reuniting on the station platform she realized she’d never felt so alone. Perhaps she should just go back and beg her father to recommend her for a housemaids job. At least the surroundings would be familiar, even if her co-workers were distant…
“Miss Carter?” A voice caught her attention. She turned to see a young man standing nearby.
“Oh good then. I was hoping I’d not mistaken you for someone else. I’m Billings. I drive for the Baxters. I’ve been sent to fetch you to Baxter Hall.” He held out his hand. “Shall I take your bag?”
“If you wish,” Ella said.
“Is this all you have?” he asked.
She nodded. “Don’t need much, really.”
“Very good. Follow me.”
He led Ella down the platform to a car. It was shiny and green, a Model S. Ella knew this from listening to her father, who enjoyed talking cars with the Chatworth’s driver. She suddenly wished her father was there to see it, but wondered if he would frown upon her riding in a two-seater beside a man close to her age. She somehow thought he would disapprove, and decided when she wrote him after settling in, she wouldn’t mention the car at all.
But she did mention it to the driver, who was surprised that she was familiar with the model. “I’m just getting used to it,” he said. “I normally don’t drive a two-seater but the car is to be a surprise gift to Lady Baxter from her husband. He indulges her a great deal, I think.”
“What’s she like?” Ella asked. “They’ve told me so little. Have you had much occasion to speak to her Ladyship?”
“Only when I drive her. She’s livened the place up a bit, that much I’ll say. She speaks her mind and word is Lord Baxter’s mother doesn’t approve over her manner and now he finds himself between his wife and his mother.” He laughed. “You’ll be stepping into a beehive, I’m afraid.”
“I’ll manage,” said Ella.
He glanced back at her, smiling. “Scottish?”
“You’re a Scot?”
“Aye,” Ella replied. “But my family’s been in service to the Chatworth’s since I was but a wee girl. It’s a bit unnerving, leaving all that I know.”
The driver shrugged. “I’ve driven for three families. They’re all the same, these rich folk. They fill their days dealing with problems of their own making.”
Ella didn’t agree. The rich were indeed different, but their hurts and trails were as real as anyone else’s. She recalled seeing Lady Chatworth cry when her husband didn’t come home. Her lady hadn’t made that problem. Sometimes, she thought, the downstairs folk could be as thoughtless as those upstairs. But she didn’t say so. She didn’t say anything, in fact. She just stared out at the passing scenery.
“We’re on Baxter land now,” Billings said, indicating the rolling green hills. A huge stone chapel stood in the distance, and a few large houses with manicured gardens.
“Lord Baxter’s mother, the dowager Miriam Baxter lives over there in that small house.” He pointed to a large stone house on a hilltop overlooking a lake. The house was nearly as big as the Chatworth’s. Ella wondered how big Baxter Hall must be.
She didn’t have to wonder for long. The car rounded a corner and in the distance through the fog Ella could see a huge structure. She almost gasped at its size and scope. She’d never seen a building larger outside of London.
“It’s a sight, isn’t it?” the driver asked, smiling as he glanced over. “I remember when I first saw it. I don’t know how they keep from getting lost inside. It kind of swallows you.”
Ella felt a wave of apprehension.
Kind of swallows you.
His words frightened her, and she longed for the familiar surroundings of the Chatworth house, where her father was always ready with good advice or a hug.