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 manner 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 sea fish pond. “Noon draws 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 ignite 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.
“If I were a barbarian, why, yes it would,” she snapped. “But look at these teacups! What did you polish them with, an oil rag? 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, cut in, 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 maids 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. “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 who 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 with his lady friend in mind, 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.”
“it 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.