An extract from STOLEN PASSION
‘You’re in here with me, Tucker. I can’t say I’m happy about it but I’m charged with keeping an eye on you.’
Ellen gazed around the cream-painted attic room. ‘It’s big, isn’t it?’
‘You have your own washstand. Be sure you make good use of it. How many outfits have you brought?’
‘Three grey skirts and bodices and one black afternoon dress.’
‘You won’t be needing your black for a while yet. You’ve a lot of things to learn before I let you loose in his lordship’s drawing room.’
‘I’ve done two years at Lady Maude’s,’ Ellen protested.
Simmonds, the head housemaid at Redfern Abbey, glared at her. ‘And one of those things is not to answer back.’
Ellen was immediately contrite. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘So you should be. I might not have been to Lady Maude’s but I have had a proper training with debenture papers and everything in a titled household. You’re just a local girl, aren’t you?’
‘My mother was a parlour maid here. She married one of the gamekeepers. They — they died when I was little.’
‘Yes, I heard about that. It was the year when it rained all winter and all the farms flooded. A lot of folk went down with the fever.’
Ellen thought Simmonds sounded quite kindly and she reflected on how different her life might have been if Mother and Father had not been taken from her so suddenly. The orphanage’s patron was the Earl of Redfern. His wife, the Countess, had visited from time to time and said a few words to each child. She was a very grand lady. Ellen had not been too miserable there because she learned quickly how to take care of herself. But she was happier when she was sent out to be a general maid for one of the tenant farmers. The best part of growing up was Sunday school where she was taught to read and write, and do sums. Her willingness to work and quick wits were noticed and the vicar’s wife recommended her for a place at Lady Maude’s Training School for Servants to prepare her for a position in the Abbey. She knew it was an honour and she was lucky. But the teachers at Lady Maude’s were strict and discipline had not come easily to Ellen.
‘Well, don’t dwell on it now, Tucker.’ Simmonds brought her back to the present. ‘Put your clothes away and come downstairs. Don’t be long. I want to see how you lay a fire.’
Ellen was confident. She had learned well at Lady Maude’s and was proud to be in service with a titled household. If she worked hard she would rise in the ranks as Simmonds had and have the independence of a good wage. Simmonds was a few years older than she but Ellen wanted to be friends. ‘What’s your name?’ she asked.
‘You can call me Tansy up here or in the servants’ hall.’
Ellen unfolded the sheets and blankets and made up her bed, then hung her clothes in the empty cupboard and put her undergarments and nightgowns carefully folded in the chest of drawers. An under-housekeeper checked the servants’ bedrooms for tidiness every day. She watched Tansy concentrating on pinning her afternoon cap in place. It had two lace ribbons that streamed down her back and matched the lace edgings on her apron. Mother would have worn the same, Ellen thought wistfully, and vowed that she would be wearing one very soon.
Tansy hurried away leaving Ellen to finish her unpacking and notice how bare her side of the room was. Tansy had hung pictures and even two photographs in frames. They were of a group of servants in front of a big house that Ellen did not recognise and she wondered if Earl Redfern’s servants had similar photographs taken here. She put on a brown drill apron over her grey-cotton housemaid’s uniform and checked in the wall mirror that her plain cap was straight. Then she gave her black boots a good buffing and clattered along the wooden floorboards of the landing corridor to the back stairs.
Tansy was waiting for her in the housekeeper’s room in the gloomy basement. Three fire-boxes were lined up on the flagstones outside the door. The head housemaid picked up one and said, ‘Bring the other two and follow me. You can show me how you frame in the old schoolrooms. Nobody uses them now Master Edward has gone to Eton.’ Ellen trudged up the back stairs again, this time to the floor below the attics and along another corridor that had a strip of carpet down the middle. The Redfern coat of arms was woven into the centre of the strip at regular intervals.
‘In here, Tucker.’ Tansy opened one of the wooden panelled doors. ‘Oh! Beg pardon, sir. I believed the schoolroom to be empty.’ She closed the door quickly and leaned against it with wide eyes. ‘Master Edward is in there. We’ll have to go somewhere else.’
‘He’ll want a fire, won’t he? It’s dank up here.’ Ellen heard footsteps on the schoolroom floorboards and the door opened.
‘Come in and get on with your work.’
‘I don’t think I should, sir,’ Tansy replied. ‘Not with you here.’
‘Is that a fire-box?’
‘These rooms need fires. There’s a definite chill in here.’ Master Edward left the door open, walked across the room and through another door.
Ellen had put down her fire-boxes and she stood silently behind Tansy, who seemed undecided about what to do. Master Edward was the earl’s only son and heir to the title. He was away for most of the year and Ellen had imagined him as a schoolboy wearing an Eton suit and straw boater on his head. But the Master Edward she had glimpsed was a young man, a handsome young man she thought, with a fresh outdoor complexion and thick dark hair. He was wearing a tweed jacket over riding breeches and boots that had mud splashes on them.
‘Well, are we going in or not?’ Ellen prompted.
‘Oh, I suppose you’ll be all right. Remember to only speak when you’re spoken to.’
‘I’ve had training as well, you know,’ Ellen muttered, and Tansy glared at her again.
Master Edward’s voice came through the open door from the adjoining room. ‘I want fires in here, too. The damp air will ruin these books.’
‘Very good, sir.’ Tansy answered. ‘Lay this one first, Tucker.’ She lifted away a large brass fireguard and stood back to watch.
Ellen pulled on a pair of brown-drill sleeve protectors, grimaced at the state of the hearth and set to work. If she had been alone, she would have stepped out of her grey overskirt to keep it clean as she knelt, but she could hardly do that with Master Edward next door. She was aware that keeping hearths swept would be her main task for the immediate future. But at least her position was ‘above stairs’ and not confined to the basement kitchen and sculleries or, heaven forbid, the laundry.
This room was more like a library than a schoolroom, she thought as she worked. The bookcases and other furniture were of dark wood and all of it could do with a good fettle. Master Edward was right about the damp air too. This side of the house faced north and had probably not been occupied since the young master went away to school. Rooms needed a regular airing even if nobody used them. She recognised some of the book titles from her own schooldays, but those on the shelves in the adjacent room were a mystery. Ellen gazed at the rows of volumes lined up, many with the titles in gold lettering on the spine.
‘Don’t stare,’ Tansy whispered. ‘This room used to be the tutor’s sitting room and his bedroom was through there.’ She nodded towards another door.
Master Edward was inspecting the books and making a list. ‘There are more volumes in the bedroom,’ he remarked. ‘This will take me longer than I expected.’
Ellen lifted the lid on her second fire-box and tackled the sitting room fireplace. The grate was smaller and she finished her task quickly. Tansy gave a brief nod of approval and motioned her to move to the bedroom only to be stopped by the sound of footsteps crossing the schoolroom floor. An older man with greying hair and dressed in a dark suit of clothes stood in the doorway. Tansy tugged at Ellen’s arm and backed silently against the wall.
‘I didn’t mean you to start on this immediately, Edward,’ the man said.
‘When did you expect me to do it, Father?’
‘Don’t take that tone with me. You’re not too big to be thrashed.’
Ellen looked from father to son and thought that he was. She pressed her lips together to suppress a smile and stared at the toes of her boots. She heard Master Edward sigh.
‘The curate would make a better job of it than I. Some of these books are from the rectory library.’
‘I have given the task to you.’
‘Why? Is it because you want to punish me for my report from school?’
‘Do you know how much it costs me to keep you at Eton? I shall not have you waste your education. I want you to prepare for Oxford.’
Edward did not reply immediately but after a short silence he said, ‘I’d prefer to help you run the estate.’
‘You will obey your father.’
Ellen’s eyed widened. His lordship sounded angry and he went on, ‘My vicar and his wife are joining us for dinner tonight and you will ask him about his time as an undergraduate at Oxford.’
‘Very well, Father.’
His lordship left and Tansy hurried in front of him to open the outer door. Ellen looked at Master Edward sympathetically. She remembered how it was at Lady Maude’s to be pushed into doing something you didn’t want. It was the briefest of upward glances but her timing was disastrous. He noticed, gave her a wry smile then continued with his task. Ellen was mortified and felt herself blushing. What a dreadful start! Thank heavens Tansy had not seen her. Her superior returned, poked Ellen in the arm and pointed to the bedroom door. She picked up her remaining fire-box and finished her chore silently.
The kindling crackled and the coal began to hiss. Tansy approached Master Edward and bobbed a curtsey. ‘I’ll send up more coal straightaway, sir,’ she said.
‘Thank you,’ he answered shortly.
As they walked away he called her back. ‘Simmonds? It is Simmonds, isn’t it?’
‘These rooms need a proper airing.’
‘I’ll see to it myself, sir.’ She curtseyed again, Ellen did the same keeping her eyes on the floor and they left with their empty fire-boxes.
‘Take them all back to the boot room then come and find me,’ Tansy ordered when they reached the basement.
‘Where will you be?’
‘I’ll be in the butler’s pantry or housekeeper’s room.’
Ellen deposited the empty boxes and retraced her steps along the dark and draughty basement passage to the butler’s pantry. The strong-room door was open and Mr Fraser, the butler, was holding a tray of table silver destined for the dining room. He was speaking to Tansy. ‘No doubt his lordship will tell me about Master Edward when I serve his sherry before dinner,’ he said.’
‘Well, I can make a start on the schoolroom after breakfast tomorrow,’ Tansy responded.
‘And who will do your work?’ Mr Fraser asked. ‘If you want to be an under-housekeeper you must learn to supervise more. Supervise,’ he emphasised and smiled benignly. He glanced in Ellen’s direction. ‘Here she is. The schoolrooms are perfect for Tucker to show us what she can do. She can start in the morning while Master Edward is out riding.’
‘If you’re sure, Mr Fraser,’ Tansy answered.
He handed her the heavy tray. ‘Take these up to dining room.’
‘Yes, Mr Fraser.’ Tansy ushered Ellen into the passage. ‘Well, you heard, didn’t you? Go and put together a cleaning box for the schoolroom and write me out your order of work. I shall be down to inspect it in an hour.’
Ellen skipped along to the housekeeper’s room and set about her task with relish.