The Big To-do
All the china teacups were as white as pure Irish cream, the gold bands around the rims polished to a shine. They were perched on delicate white plates embossed with patterns of flowers and fruits, and guarding them on each side were silver sword-like knives. The crisp silk napkins had been folded perfectly, almost blending in with the white expanse of the snowy table cloth. Each chair had been positioned just so, with the utmost care. On the silver plate in the centre of the table rested a pound of butter that was all sharp angles. The perfume of tea roses floated in the air. It did not quite block the scent of scones Lily was baking in the kitchen. As we were not required to wear shoes in the summer when no guests were present, I let the silky grass caress my bare feet when I walked around the lawn. It was hard to think that anybody would find the table setting less than perfect. Satisfied, I spun on my heel and started toward the manor to get the hot water pots. The guests would be arriving soon.
“And where, Miss Charlotte, do you think you are going?” said a knife-on-plate voice. I stumbled to a halt, looking back. Mindy Little glared at me from behind my expertly set table, hands on her slender hips. I gulped.
“I’m just going to get the water!” I called to her, not coming any closer. I indicated the floating sundial on the fish pond. “Noon is drawing near.”
She threw up her hands. “That isn’t your job, Abigail. You were instructed to set the table. Lily will send the water with Joy!”
Mindy had dove grey eyes that could harden into steel at will, and corn silk hair that made her look angelic. But she was rarely kind to anyone, especially me, and it didn’t take much to inspire her rage. This trait left much to be desired of her since she was in charge of us all.
“Does the table not meet your expectations?” I asked meekly.
“If I were a barbarian, why, yes it would,” she snapped. “But look at these teacups! What did you polish them with, an oil cloth? And my, this table cloth appears as though you chucked it on without a care!”
She closed the distance between us to stand centimetres from my nose. We were the exact same height, and were often required to share clothes, which bated her to no end.
“Abigail,” she said slowly, as though I were daft. “This is Master and Missus Verlesk’s thirtieth anniversary tea. Everything must be perfect—”
But Mindy, for once, didn’t get to finish her tirade. Mrs. Verlesk came into view, with her bratty daughter, Sasha, whining at her side for one thing or another. I knew not how the girl could speak in such a manner to deaf ears, for it was perfectly obvious her mother had ceased listening the moment her daughter had opened her mouth.
“Abigail!” Mrs. Verlesk exclaimed now. “Did you set this table?”
“Yes, she did!” started Mindy accusatorially. “Isn’t it—”
“Marvellous!” Mrs. Verlesk, went on, putting a hand to her heart. “Simply marvellous!”
Lips twitching, I stepped out from behind Mindy and curtsied as deeply as I could. Such curtsies were normally reserved for the Queen, but I tried to make a habit of living in the moment. “Thank you, Mrs. Verlesk.”
Mindy stood gaping in a dreadfully unladylike manner. She dropped like a rock when she realized Mrs. Verlesk was staring at her, awaiting an accompanying curtsy.
When the party of two went out of sight, I skipped off to get the water.
The Verlesk Manor sat on the top of a large hill, and the tea was to be held in the back garden. I happily ran up the hill, floating on Mrs. Verlesk’s praise. Ah, but what a lovely day it was. it was not too hot or cool, and the breeze was just enough to rustle the tearoses below. If I stood on the tips of my toes to see over the looming pines, I could see a bright carriage advancing from the foothills. But, being a servant, there was rarely any time to admire such things, so I pushed open the back door.
In the kitchen, the other servants had the oddest expressions on their faces. Twisted, like masks. I regarded them in a way that openly questioned their sanities before reaching for the kettle on the stove.
“We heard what happened outside,” said a small, shy voice that was on the verge of laughter. It was little Nell, who rarely ever spoke but was sweet as a thimble. “Miss Mindy looks like there’s a bee’s nest in her bonnet.”
The entire kitchen erupted with the suppressed laughter. The maid’s attempted to mimic Mindy’s shocked expressions, which brought on new waves of guffaws.
“Great job, Miss Charlotte,” said the chef’s assistant Jaebok, who couldn’t see the bright side of a candle. “I’m sure Ms Mindy will be in good spirits now. Maybe I’ll be serving all your heads on a platter for the next tea.”
“No, Jaebok. It is not your head I will be requesting,” said Mindy, stepping from behind the door that we all thought was closed. She glared at me as she said this. I tensed, held in her fiery gaze like a matchstick. Everyone was frozen in various stages of what ever tasks I had interrupted. “But that is not why I have come,” she continued.
A silent groan permeated the kitchen. Mindy had her about-to-give-a-lecture voice on. I sat down on a little bench beside Nell while the water pot grew cold in my hands. This was going to be a long one.
Thanks to Mindy, Lily had to hastily re-boil the water, and though we were not late, we did miss the beginning of Mr. Verlesk’s speech. We servants were required to stay out of sight unless our presence is requested, but some of Mr. Verlesk’s speeches took hours and we were never needed then. Mrs. Verlesk encouraged us to watch from behind the garden hedge if we wanted. Poor Lily had to stay in the hot kitchen, and Mindy would never be troubled with our affairs. Nell, Jaebok, I and some other maids huddled behind the hedge, speaking to one another in hushed tones about the guests we could barely make out behind the branches.
“My, Master Luke is looking especially arrogant today,” Helen commented with a whispered laugh. “I wonder whose soul he had for breakfast this morning.”
“I reckon it was that of poor Carla,” Jane suggested, pointing out the sulking girl. “I wonder why she hangs on him so. Does she not know he will never look at her as more than his next fix?”
“I think not, but I beg of you, let us not speak of him,” said Jaebok. “Little pitchers have big ears, you know.”
Dorothy snorted. “What pitchers? These roses? My, you do fret nonsense.”
“Indeed,” said Gretchen, “but the boy does have a point. We, as the servants of this household, must watch what we say in the presence of…well, no one in particular, really.” She laughed heartily.
We were still, eying the party on the green. Mr. Verlesk droned on, the guests merely pretending to be listening. “And now,” he was saying, “I would like to demonstrate to you our accumulated wealth by presenting to you the maids of this house!”
We leapt to our feet. “Lo! what is this?” exclaimed Lucy. “When has Master Verlesk ever requested our presence at one of his speeches?” We hiked our skirts and hustled out of the hedge.
Mindy gripped my arm. “Abigail, he doesn’t mean you. You may be a maid, but you are not on the staff. Go back behind that bush.” She shoved me.
I sat back limply in the grass, watching my friends and Mindy parade in front of the guests. My chest tightened with longing.
In the direction of the peach tree orchard, footsteps thudded on the thirsty earth, loudening at an alarming rate. With a gasp, I hurried in the other direction. I looked once over my shoulder to find a shadow drifting in the peach trees, which was a big mistake. When I turned around again, I was too late to stop myself from running smack into the tall stranger in my path.
“Master!” I exclaimed, wide-eyed. “Forgive me! I was not watching where I was going—”
“Well, that’s quite alright,” he said. His soft, kind tone of voice made me look up at him in surprise. He was young, perhaps seventeen, with curling golden hair and soft blue eyes. He smiled gently at my look of shock. “It doesn’t seem to be your fault; may I ask whom you are running from?”
“Um—I—I’m not sure, really. I was hiding, and someone was coming, and I didn’t want to get in trouble—” I stopped. I was speaking as though he would care. “But anyway, I really must be on my way. and again, I apologize, Mr…”
“Gregory. Carson Gregory.” He smiled again. “But you may call me Carson. I am only seventeen, in truth, and the title of ‘Mr.’ or ‘Master’ gives me the impression that I am absurdly aged.”
I nodded, curtsied, and started back toward the hedge. The mysterious figure was gone. “But wait!” said Mr. Gregory. “What is your name, maiden?”
I curtsied again. true, I was not in traditional maid’s attire, as Mrs. Verlesk insisted we be dressed as regular people. I thought about lying to him, but that had only caused problems for me in the past. “I am a maid, not a maiden, Mr. Gregory, and my name is Abigail Charlotte.”
He bowed gallantly. “It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
The way his eyes shone when he said this, I wondered if it really was a pleasure meeting a red-headed maid’s apprentice who had almost knocked him over. Maybe it was the friendliness in his eyes or his kind manner, but I found myself asking him what he was doing out here, anyway.
“My uncle’s speeches bore me to death,” he whispered. “I had to get away, and these gardens are certainly lovely. I suppose I must be getting back soon. It sounds as though he has finished.”
To my horror, I could make out the sound of faint applause beyond the trees. “Oh, no!” Without another word, I was off again.
I grabbed a teapot off the cart and stood with the other maids, ready to offer more when the teacups ran low. My heavy breathing attracted curious looks from the servants, but no one uttered a word. I scanned the cups.
My eyes came to rest on Master Gregory, who was seated beside an attractive young woman, talking animatedly. She laughed merrily and placed her hand over his. For a moment they just stared into each others eyes, and I felt an inexplicable sense of disappointed.
“Abigail!” hissed Mindy. “I think that man over there would like some more tea.” She said this with a jovial smile, but the malice lacing her words was unmistakable.
Walking as gracefully as I could, I poured tea for many more people, who seemed to have all run out at precisely the same time. All except Master Gregory’s, at least. He and his companion hadn’t touched theirs. I kept my eyes down when I passed him.
At the head of the table, the Verlesks were engaged in conversation with Sasha and Luke, which was odd. Luke was usually flirting with some hapless girl or piteous Carla, and Sasha usually just picked sullenly at her food. Naughty maid that I was, I drifted closer on the pretence of offering more tea. I had grown accustomed to being invisible.
“Tea?” I inquired of a gentleman sitting near them, all the while listening to the conversation.
“Please, do!” Sasha was exclaiming, clapping her hands in delight.
“Yes, I agree.” Luke nodded as though in thought, but I knew he was most likely just checking to make sure his gloves were still impeccably spotless. “You and father need a break. And I hear the ocean is particularly blue this time of year.”
“We’ll take care of everything,” Sasha put in. “Or you could call Grandma to come watch us.”
“But, Luke,” protested Mrs. Verlesk. “You are barely nineteen, and Sasha’s only twelve. How can we leave you alone for a whole month?”
“Now, Wanda,” laughed Mr. Verlesk. “What do you think we hired the nannies for? The children will be fine.”
“I’ll have some tea, Abigail.” Mrs. Verlesk motioned me over absently. Disappointed, I poured tea for all four of them and left.
“I think our master and mistress are planning on leaving somewhere,” I announced in the servants quarters that night. “Somewhere near the ocean.”
“Indeed,” said Lucy in surprise. “Have you not heard? Master got offered a job near Bristershine, but Mrs. Verlesk insists that the place is a madman’s town.”
“So Master is trying to convince her to take a trip there to prove what it is really like.” Helen giggled. “But I have been there, as a nanny once. It is simply marvellous! I would like to see the look on the Mistress’s face when she sees the beauty of it.”
“So what you’re saying,” I cut in. “Is that they are most likely going to move? But what will become of us?”
There was silence. “I suppose we will be left unemployed. I don’t think they intend to keep us if they can get some new servants in Bristershine. Mrs. Verlesk likes to keep the help local,” Lily said after a pause. She shrugged, but her shoulders sagged. “Oh, well.”
“Now, Lily,” said wise old Dorothy. “You cannot be sure of that. you are a wonderful cook. They always keep the good ones.”
“No, they don’t.” Lily seemed sad. “They have moved to at least five different towns, and they only employ ‘the good ones’ in the first place, and all of you came here when I did.”
I sat on the edge of my bed, with its nice feather blankets and pillows like wheat bags of cottony snow. Before working for the Verlesks, I had worked for a kindly old lady named Bernice Featherstone. When she died, they turned up almost right away to take some of her servants, but I was the only one who did not yet have a new master. Bernice’s recommendations had attracted employers like fleas. But I had only been here for a year, and already I was going to have to leave? I had only worked for two houses so far, and they had both been extremely pleasant, but I feared I would not be so lucky next time.
Sasha stormed into the room then, startling us all. We hastily stood up and curtsied.
“Abigail! Come help me undress for the night!” she ordered, pointing a bony finger at me. I jerked imperceptibly. I followed behind her at a cautious clip.
“Has Wendy taken ill?” I asked once I had closed the door to her vast room.
“No!” she whined, the sound grating on my ears. “I don’t like Wendy anymore.”
“Oh. I see.” Sasha often decided she didn’t like people for no apparent reason. I doubted Wendy took any offence.
I loosened Sasha’s stays and took the blue ribbons out of her hair. She didn’t say a word as I slipped her lace nightgown over her head.
“Is that satisfactory?” I asked her when I was done.
She nodded. “Yes, quite. You may take an hour for yourself outdoors, Abigail. It is a splendid night to be out, don’t you think?”
I smiled at her. “Yes, Miss Sasha. Thank you.” She nodded at me with a small smile. I curtsied, and made my smooth way out of her room. When I was in the silent hall, I clicked my heels together and sprinted out the back door.
I ran to the creek, cloaked spookily in darkness. The night birds chirped happily, and the water bubbled blackly like an uncertain joke. “Good evening, pretty creek,” I said with a bow. I kicked off my shoes and dipped my feet in the cool water. My skin prickled.
I longed to jump in waist deep, but I didn’t want to get my dress all wet and drip in the house for Helen to clean up. Along with her random inspirations of dislike, Sasha enjoyed giving out random byes. I didn’t want to stir up any petty jealousies.
Despite the garden noises, it was oddly silent here. A feeling of peace drifted down on me like a warm blanket. I breathed in the smell of soil and blossoms and herbs, and warm summer air. When the sounds of humanity were taken away, you were left with nothing but this. It was just the way I liked it.
An hour wasn’t much, but it was something. I stretched out along the bank, staring at the stars. They were hard for me to see, but I thought I could make out the Pole Star over the treetops. Bliss, is what it was.
I sat bolt upright. “Mr. Gregory?” I stammered incredulously.
“Yes, it is I.” He stepped into sight. “How do you do, Miss Charlotte?”
“Um.” I struggled to my feet. “Quite well, thank you. May I assist you with anything? I mean, something?”
He shook his head. I couldn’t see his face very well. “No, I was just wandering. Are you hiding again?”
I blushed. “No, Master Carson. I was given an hour of time to myself. I came to enjoy the peace.”
“I see. So, am I disturbing your peace?”
I kicked myself mentally. “No! I mean, of course not. But may I ask you something?”
“Certainly.” He took a seat on a felled tree that served perfectly as a bench. I thought of pointing out that his suit would be soiled.
“Why did you not leave like the other guests? It is quite late to be visiting.” He was so unlike other young men he regressed me through years of training.
“Mr. Verlesk is my uncle,” he told me. “I may stay for as long as I like.”
I blushed deeper. “Yes, of course. Forgive my boldness. I must be on my way.”
“Wait, Miss Charlotte!”
I paused. “Yes, Mr. gregory?”
“Must you really be leaving? I really could use some company.”
I scrunched my eyebrows. “As you wish, Master Gregory.”
“Carson. Won’t you have a seat, Miss Charlotte? How long have you been out here, may I ask?”
I awkwardly perched on a different tree bench, the rough bark pinching my skin with wizened claws. “Just fifteen minutes, I think.” I didn’t volunteer more information than I felt I had to. I still wasn’t sure what he wanted with me.
“I see. So how long have you been working for my uncle and aunt?”
“Almost a year. It was about this time last summer that a friend of mine showed me this place.”
“iI is quite lovely.” He gazed at the water. “Have you ever been canoeing?”
I blanched. Why would I want to do that? “No, I haven’t. Have you?”
“Yes, many times. It is quite enchanting, especially in the spring. Where I come from, there are blossoms all year long on most of the trees, and the waters are always pristine and clear.”
“That sounds pleasant,” I said sceptically.
He laughed, and it ricocheted back to us from a thousand different places. “You don’t believe me. I must take you some time.”
Was he forgetting that I was a maid? “Sure?”
He laughed again, further deepening my sense of utter confusion.
“Do you hear that?” I said suddenly, standing up. “I think it is Master Luke! I’m sorry, I really must be going! Thank you for the visit!”
And I took off, in the opposite direction of the manor.
It was a while before I realized I was going the wrong way. I took a roundabout way, making sure to stay clear of the creek. I gave it such a wide berth that it took me the rest of my hour to get back.
The memory was still clear in my mind, of my first day on the job. Paul had found me after my first falling out with Mindy, crying in the broom cupboard.
“Hello, you’re the new maid, right?” he said when he saw me there.
I quickly wiped my tears. “Yes. Do forgive me. How do you do?”
He kneeled in front of me. “I’m fine, Abigail. I’m assuming you met Mindiache?”
Her name, of course, made me giggle. “No wonder she’s such a miserable—”
He held up a hand, green eyes twinkling. “Now, now, Miss Charlotte.”
I grinned. He helped me out of that broom cupboard, and as it was our break for afternoon tea, we walked arm-in-arm to the stable together, never ceasing our meaningless chitchat.
“Want to go for a little ride?” he asked me when we stood outside the stall of Mr. Verlesk’s horse Vesuvius.
“I’ve never been on a horse before,” I said nervously.
“Are you scared?”
“Well, then you can ride double with me. Come on, I want to show you something. It will help you deal with Mindiache.”
So, we rode double on Vesuvius, all the way to the creek. In the day time, it was fascinating how the pollen and dandelion fluff floated on the sun rays, the creak slipping over rocks and under tree-bridges. Bright flowers grew along the banks, and ivies embraced the enormous tree trunks.
He reached into the water and pulled out a perfectly round blue and green stone. “Put this in your pocket,” he told me, “and whenever you feel like you could kill Mindy, touch it and think of this place. Pray for her soul, and I promise you will feel better.”
Just him saying those words made me suddenly and magically impervious to her vicious austerity. The stone sat in the drawer of my locked false-bottom jewellery box he had bought me.
Paul’s family moved that winter for a better-paying job down East, and I never saw him again.
I crawled into bed, and lulled myself to sleep by counting the sweet kisses Paul and I had shared during our time together, each one distinct and burned into my memory. And though the memories made me smile, I felt like a superheated flake pastry gone bad.
Here at Verlesk Manor, we all had our own secret recipe for pancakes. Every Sunday it was someone else’s turn, and the day after my double encounters with Carson, it was mine.
“Everybody, out!” ordered Nell, clapping his little hands. “Abby’s making pancakes!”
We smiled endearingly at him. he was the only one allowed to call me Abby, and he made good use of the privilege. One by one, everyone filed out, and he smiled at me before closing the door behind him. I knew he would keep even Mindy from entering, darling as he was.
I cracked two cartons of eggs into a humongous twelve-gallon mixing bowl, poured in three jars of milk. Next went in a bag and a half of flour, four cups of baking powder, and six cups of sugar. I only needed a cup of oil. I mixed everything together, which took near to twenty minutes, and took a taste. It was still a bit watery.
I reached into the jar on the counter for another scoop of flour. My cup hit something near the bottom, inhibiting me from getting out my flour until the thing was removed. i bit back a twinge of annoyance. People had to learn not to leave the measuring cups in the flour jars.
I reached down, my whole arm disappearing through the narrow mouth of the jar. My fingers closed around it.
It wasn’t a measuring cup.
In my hand was a perfectly round, red tablet with an embossment on it. I rinsed the flour off, and found that it was of a fat, winged naked child that took up most of the space. The disk itself was about five inches in diameter, and almost a centimetre thick. I stared at the object, my mind going blank. a zigzag line ran behind the child, and one end of it stuck out. It made it look like it had a tail.
What was it doing in the flour jar?
I flipped it over, cautious now. The backside was perfectly smooth. I took a knife and tapped it; it neither chipped nor scratched. Eyebrows scrunched, I studied it for a minute longer, before recalling that I was supposed to be making breakfast. Conspiratorially, I pocketed it and dumped in my extra cup of flour.
“Okay, Nell.” I opened the door to let everyone in. I caught sight of Mindy rounding a corner and disappearing. “Are you going to help me cook these things?”
My recipe made about three hundred pancakes, enough for everyone to have about twelve each. Though, nobody ever ate more than three, except Luke, who normally ate his quota. It wasn’t polite. The extras were smuggled to the homeless people who waited on Sundays outside the estate gates. I was glad that it was my turn to deliver them today.
We put the two-hundred-fifty extras in thirteen wicker baskets, and put the seventy-five that would actually be eaten on the rolling cart with the butter and syrup.
I piled the baskets onto another bigger cart that was excellent for manoeuvring on rough terrain. I stole out the front kitchen door, as breakfast was being served in the dining hall. The twenty paces to the edge of the woods flashed by in my headlong sprint to avoid being seen. Once in the cover of the trees, though, I slowed my pace and once again gazed thoughtfully at the strange ceramic disk I had found. I shuddered at the sense of doom I suddenly had. It reminded me of an epiphany of Armageddon.
I pocketed it again and pulled at the cart. A wheel of it caught a root in the otherwise smooth path. Before I could do anything, the whole thing tipped over, and the pancakes spilled all over the ground.
“No!” I cried, falling to my knees I had no time to blow off the dirt, so I just shoved them back into their baskets frantically.
Swarms of insects came out of hiding from underground. “Go away!” I cried. But it was too late. If I put more in now, that would just infect the others. I was forced to leave the rest behind.
Now I only had five and a half baskets, for a hungry crowd of normally a hundred.
Slowly, I shook my head. Good morning, Abigail.
Too soon, I found myself pushing open the secret gate that everyone knew about. Guilt gathered in all my pores, and I prepared to face the crowds of potentially furious homeless people.
Since the Verlesk’s property extended almost to the edge of town, there were no trees beyond. Nothing but a strip of summer green grass separated the estate wall and the city of Euhalot at the foot of the hill. Lying in casual positions in the grass in their threadbare clothing were not a hundred people, but closer to a hundred-fifty. Someone gave a shout, and all at once the murmurs stilled; all eyes were turned on me.
As per usual, Jonathan came forward with a big smile on his face. “Abigail!” he said. “So nice of you to come today. And thank you,” he added, eying the baskets.
Jonathan’s face always caused me to cringe when I saw it, bony and gaunt as it was. the paleness of his skin lent his hands a horribly skeletal appearance, and his feet were dreadful to even catch sight of. they were always dirty, often scratched, and as bony as the rest of him. I forced a returning smile upon my face.
“Good morning, all.” I gave Jonathan a basket, and people lined up behind him to start handing them out. Before Jonathan left, I caught his arm. “Why are there so many people today?”
“Word got out about the pancakes,” he whispered.
I swallowed again. “Great. Umm, about that.”
His smile froze on his face. “Yes? What is it, Abigail.”
“Well, you see, something happened on the way here. the cart overturned, and I lost most of the pancakes, and I only have four baskets, you see, and it’s not enough, and I don’t know what to do—” I stopped, peering at his face. He was frowning now.
“Well.” He said tightly. He opened the lid of the basket to look at the dirt speckled pancakes. “I suppose we’ll just have to make do.”
I nodded guiltily, shuffling my feet on the grass. It didn’t take long to empty the baskets, and I left without another word.
“So how’d it go?”
Lily was the only one in the kitchen when I at last made it back. I could see she was mixing together ingredients for a cake, which was unusual. The Verlesk’s hated cake.
“Great,” I lied. “Did Mindy miss me?”
Lily nodded. “Yes, twice, to make the beds and help me with dishes. But it’s been taken care of.”
“Swell. What’s the cake for?”
Lily made a moue. “Luke is having company,” she confided. “Apparently this is the main course, and her poor heart will be dessert.”
“Now, Lily. You and I both know that Luke doesn’t eat hearts. He likes to leave them with his victims to cry over.”
“True. Too true.”
I licked a bit of batter off the side of the bowl, rewarding me with a frown from Lily. “So what are my tasks for today?” I asked her with an impish smile.
“You may begin by changing the linens in all the bedrooms,” Lily suggested. “There’s a fresh basket behind the door. and when you’re done that, there’s weeds that need pulling in the vegetable garden, oh, and don’t forget…”
When I passed the master bedroom with the laundry hamper on my hip, Mrs. Verlesk called out for me to come to her.
She smiled at me, and commenced staring at her hands in thought.
“Yes, Mistress?” I prompted. “Do you require assistance with something?”
She looked up at me, finally. “Well, Abigail, I… you know I’ve always trusted you most out of all my servants, right?”
I blinked. “Um…no, ma’am I didn’t.”
She smiled sadly. “Well, Abigail, I do, and I have noticed how incredibly intelligent you are.”
“Yes, Abigail. And as my most trustworthy servant, I would like some counsel.”
“Concerning what, madam?”
She picked at her dress. “Abigail, I have a feeling Mr. Verlesk is not being faithful to me. and, as my most trustworthy servant, and, might I add, the most tactful, I would like you to keep an eye on him when I go out tomorrow. If you see any suspicious behaviour, make a note of it and tell me.” she nodded to herself. “Do you understand, Abigail? I must know; it has been weighing heavily on my mind for the longest time now. And…well, that’s all you need to know, I suppose. You may go, now. Oh, and since you have agreed to aid me, tomorrow you may have the entire free day to keep my husband in your sight. I will let Mindiache know as well.”
I giggled in the hallway. Mindy’s name sounded just the way it was spelled: Mindy-ache. Because she’s a butt-ache. Her parents must have hated her. I was still laughing when I pushed open the door to the fifth bedroom and walked in on Carson, stretched out on the bed, reading.
“Oh, hello, Miss Charlotte.” He wore trousers and a button-up shirt that made his eyes look like the sky. I right near dropped my hamper.
“Carson,” he corrected, rising from the bed. “So what brings you here, Miss Charlotte?”
I looked at the floor. “Changing the linens,” I mumbled.
He moved closer. “What was that?”
I flinched, and this time I did drop my hamper. He was standing right in front of me.
“I’m changing the bed linens,” I said. “But I will come back later for these ones.”
I bent to pick up the linens that had been spilled, at the same time that he did. Our hands brushed as they reached for the same bedspread. I pulled away, refusing to have one of those moments akin to romance novels, where the heroine and the hero reach for the same flower/book/dangerous weapon, their eyes meet, and they fall in love. I was a sucker for that sort of thing, and the quickened pace of my heart was not a good sign.
And then, of course, there was Paul.
I glanced at Carson once, though, and found him gazing at me thoughtfully. It was all I could do not to run.
“Good day, Master Gregory.”
I dipped a curtsy with the speed of light, which nearly tipped my basket again. my hand fluttered uselessly as he righted it, and then I was gone.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” I muttered to myself.
The rest of the day passed without incident. I did the laundry, the weeding, scrubbed pots. By suppertime, I was able to convince myself that this morning had been a terrible dream. Except for the fact that after supper, he never seemed to disappear.
“Hello, Miss Charlotte,” he said when I closed the door to the cellar on a fresh bag of potatoes.
“Carson,” he said charmingly.
“Fancy meeting you here,” he said in the empty dining room around ten of the clock when I came in to sweep the floor.
“Master Gregory,” I replied politely.
He watched me the entire time I worked, unnerving me to no end.
“May I help you, Miss Charlotte?” he asked me when I went to the vegetable garden to get some carrots for Lily’s stew.
“That’s quite alright, thank you, Master Gregory.”
“Carson. Does my name repel you, Miss Charlotte?”
I blushed. “Of course not! I quite like it, sir, it is just not the way I was trained.” I raised my chin. “But, sir, I am only sixteen. Why do you call me ‘Miss?’ when you call me Abigail, I will gladly call you Carson. If it pleases you,” I added.
But he smiled, of course. “Is that a deal, Abigail?” he whispered, rocking back on his heals.
“A deal? I suppose.”
He grinned even wider. “Abigail.” he repeated.
I gritted my teeth and took a deep breath, fighting against my years of scrupulous apprenticeship. “Carson,” I got out, making a terrible face.
He laughed softly and tipped his hat to me before walking away.
The woman he had been sitting with at the tea on Friday met him at the gate, and they strolled arm-in-arm toward the house.
I had never been more confused in my life.
My, but I must have been sulking madly, for even butt-ache Mindy asked me if I was alright. I was coming back with the carrot bucket when she passed me. the joyous cries of the late-night cricket players were almost lost on the blowing wind. She said, and I quote: “Miss Charlotte, what is the matter with you? Buck up, right now. Are you alright? Yes? Then hurry up and make some butter! And when you are done with that…”
“What? Did you say something, Master Luke?” I interrupted. I stretched up on my toes, looking over her head.
“Master Luke?” she squeaked, whirling around. “Where?”
“Nowhere,” I said quietly as I stole into the night. “Nowhere at all.”
Problem one: solved; butt-pain cured. But, what to do with Master Gregory?
And by that, of course, I meant Carson.
Bright and early came the day of my secret undercover mission. Thunder rumbled and lightning flashed, rain hammering the windows like angry villagers. I groaned, falling back against my covers.
“Miss Abigail!” Dorothy pulled my blankets off again. “The day grows old! Get your lazy behind out of bed this instant.”
“What, might I inquire, is the time this lovely morning?”
“Four thirty-two, Abigail. Be thankful I let you sleep in an extra two minutes. Now show your gratitude and help your old Dorothy with the breakfasts!”
“Actually, Dorothy, Mrs. Verlesk has given Abigail a bye today,” said Mindy bitterly. “She may go back to sleep until the Mistress tells her otherwise.
“Really?” I mumbled. “Splendid.”
Thunder cracked, scaring me so as to propel me out of bed. I landed on the floor with a thud. Everyone laughed at me.
So I ended up getting dressed anyway. Mindy didn’t give me one thing to do, so I helped Dorothy after all.
“Master Gregory is a peculiar one, don’t you think?” Dorothy kneaded the bread and I fried eggs.
“Sure. He’s not like most people of his status. He’s actually…nice. Not snobby at all.”
“I think he likes you, Abigail.”
I choked. “Dorothy, that is absurd! He is courting!”
Dorothy looked confused. “No, he isn’t, dear. I inquired. Yesterday, in fact.”
I stared at her. “He’s not courting anyone? But I’m a maid, Dorothy. He can’t like me.”
She frowned. “Dear me, child, have you not been listening to a word I’ve been saying? Master Gregory is not like them!”
“He insists that I call him Carson,” I said quietly.
Dorothy tapped my arm. “There you go, Abigail.”
“Well, so what? It can’t last for long, and anyway, I’m waiting for Paul to return.”
Dorothy smiled gently. “You just do whatever your heart tells you, Abigail, and trust that the Lord will lead you the rest of the way.”
We worked in silenced the rest of the morning, and then I was summoned by Mrs. Verlesk to the empty parlour.
“I’m about to take off, Abigail.” She put something in her purse and slung in onto her shoulder. “You know what you are to do, I trust? And if he leaves in the carriage, you must ride after him on one of the horses. Remember, Abigail, he must not know that you are tailing him. this is very, very important.” She gripped my chin in her hands, tipping my face up to hers. “He worries me, Abigail.”
For the first time, I noticed that her eyes were the exact same hazel colour as mine, with one large blue speck in the same place. She released me.
“But, Mistress, I have not been on a horse in my life!”
She turned around. “Oh, don’t be silly. I know you rode with Paul Johnson last summer, and you did quite alright, indeed.” She shot me a knowing look and then disappeared.
I sank into the cushioned chair by the fireplace. So she knew about that. I laughed. Good old Mrs. Verlesk.
“Oh, and Abigail—” the door opened again and she poked her head in. “Abigail! You are supposed to be finding my husband, not sitting around! Don’t think that this free day is actually free!” She folded her arms across her chest.
“No, of course not, Mrs. Verlesk! Right away, ma’am. Please forgive me, Mistress!” I jumped up and curtsied, holding my position until she spoke again.
“Very well, but don’t forget your purpose, Abigail. I am counting on you.” The statement was more of a threat than a reminder. “You may rise.”
My legs screamed in protest, and I almost fell.
It took no time at all to find Mr. Verlesk. He was in his study; I was just in time to see him shut the door.
I ran and got my mending basket, sitting in the spare dining hall with a full view of that door. I got through exactly one stitch before it opened again.
He walked out, saw me with my head bent over a purple dress, and didn’t say anything. I grabbed a dusting rag from under a shelf, and followed him to the door, stopping to dust random things along the way. I hid in the unused closet as he pulled on his hat and raincoat. The doorman held his umbrella for him as he stepped into the rain.
I growled under my breath. Please come back, I begged silently. I ran to the window, and watched in horror as he got into the waiting carriage.
“No!” I cried. But as the driver flicked the reins, it was evident that I was going to have to follow.
In the pounding rain.
I passed Lucy as I sprinted to the servant’s quarters. “Whoa, Abigail! Where’s the fire?”
“No fires in this weather, Lucy,” I called over my shoulder as I streaked by. “But I have to go!”
I yanked my jacket on and grabbed my umbrella. I had no time to lace up my boots. I would have to ride in my shoes. Gritting my teeth, I raced back out again, and didn’t stop running until I reached the stable.
“Remember me, Vesuvius?” I asked breathlessly as I opened the stall door. It was all coming back to me now, the passive instruction Paul had given me. We had been riding many times together after that first day. I put the bit in, not bothering with the saddle since we had always rode bareback. I led him to the mounting block and got on.
But I wasn’t wearing a riding skirt. My dress rode awkwardly up my thighs, exposing my legs to the horrid rain. I had no idea how to steer the beast, let alone do it with an umbrella, so I was forced to leave it behind. I could hardly see two feet in front of me.
Fretting, I picked up the reins. Paul said that squeezing with your legs was the way to go, but how hard? experimentally, I applied a little bit of pressure. Suddenly I remembered that Paul had always clicked at the horse, and that seemed to work for him.
“Come on, Vesuvius!” I clicked my tongue against my cheek. he snorted, shaking his head and spraying me with more rain. not that it made much of a difference. “I don’t have time for this!” I exclaimed. I kicked him in the side.
The next thing I knew, I was facedown in the mud.
I don’t know how long I laid there, soaking in the summer rain. I heard Vesuvius galloping away, and then it was just me and the storm.
“Abigail!” came a cry from very far away. I spit the dirt from my teeth and tried to stand, but I couldn’t feel my legs. I opened my mud caked eyes, and found I could see better, here on the ground. Mr. Verlesk’s carriage was nowhere in sight; I had failed.
Strong hands gripped me under my arms, pulling me upwards. All at once, the feeling in my legs came back—and I instantly wished it hadn’t.
“Whoa, steady there!” said my rescuer as I sagged back toward the ground. I was swept up into his arms, and his arm under my leg was like a knife-edged rock digging into my muscles.
But now I could clearly see his face. “Master Gregory?” I shouted over the storm.
“Carson!” he shouted back without his smile. Hunched over me, he walked quickly to the house.
“What happened, Abigail?” he asked when we stood in the doorway, dripping on the carpet.
I shook too hard to answer. Despite myself, I pressed my cheek against his warm shoulder. The pain in my legs travelled to my throat and threatened to explode into a scream. I wished he would put me down.
“Helen!” I heard him call.
“Oh, dear! What happened? Come, take her to her room! Agatha! Mary! Come help, there’s been an accident!”
I was laid gently on my warm feather bed, and Carson protested as he was shooed away. I was stripped of my soaked clothes, and then laid in a bath so hot it made me scream.
“There, there,” soothed Lucy, as four pairs of hands held me still. “It’s not really hot, you’re just cold as an icebox.”
“We must splint her legs!”
“Good Lord, look at how they’re flopping!”
I screamed again, in horror this time. stupidly, I continued to thrash in the water that was still not comfortable. I was shuddering violently, each convulsion stabbing straight to my legs.
“Somebody call the doctor!”
“There’s no need, Dorothy, she’ll be fine. We just need to calm her down. she’s making it worse!”
“Abigail, sweetie, you have to be still,” said Lucy frantically. Her words went through me without sticking anywhere; I continued to thrash and scream.
Suddenly, there was a sharp pain on the side of my head, and I knew no more.
I groaned, turning over in my bed. The motion brought stabbing pains to precisely every part of my body, and I sagged on the mattress.
“Abigail? Are you awake?”
I didn’t know who was talking to me, but I couldn’t answer. The only thing I could do was go back to sleep.
“Abigail, honey, wake up,” said the same soft voice.
“Why?” I mumbled. I didn’t hurt so much anymore, but sleep was still the better alternative. “Go away.”
“Someone’s here to see you, Abigail. He brought you something.”
He? I smiled, taking a wild guess at who it was. I had had the most pleasant dreams…
I was mildly surprised. This wasn’t the voice of my blue-eyed prince. “Nell?” I whispered.
“Yes, it’s me. Are you okay? Mindy says she hit you really hard!”
I frowned. Why would Mindy hit me? I knew she didn’t like me, or anyone, really, but she had never so much as raised a hand to even stray dogs.
“Nell, you know why I did it,” said Mindy, and I was startled all over again. Her voice was the same one that had called me out of the darkness. “How are you feeling, Miss Charlotte?”
“Better,” I sighed, which didn’t say much. Saying to someone stranded in a canyon that they were doing well after climbing six feet was more sensible.