Saucers, spoons, cups, caddy, milk, lemons and strainer. The teapot was white, carved ivory in the shape of a reclining camel. There was a box strapped down to the camel’s back and the top pulled back to reveal the reservoir. From that stretched an ornamental tail which attached to the camel’s bottom. The mouth coincided with the camel’s upraised head looking quizzically ahead of itself.
“Okay, I have everything.” I told myself, checking over once again to be sure. I picked up the tray and headed up the servant’s stairs.
I paused at the mirror at the top. I was nervous; I needed to make sure to look my best. Today we were entertaining one Lord Cecil, the Most Honourable Marquess of Salisbury, something rare indeed in the house of a baron. I looked okay, I told myself, I can do this. Just put your best foot forward and make a good impression. Or better yet, no impression at all. A good parlour maid was a ghost, providing all that was asked of her with minimal fuss and even less notice.
I opened the door and stepped into the hall. I moved with a purpose to the sitting room and stepped inside. My lord was sitting in his favourite sitting chair listening to a man who could only be the Marquess of Salisbury. The Marquess was seated in a leather couch and dressed in a black suit that fit him well but didn’t seem to suit him all the same. He was young, much younger than most lords, and thin. His face was thin too, but in an attractive-helpless way instead of a gaunt way. I didn’t think him helpless though. I imagined him horseback with a sabre, I could see him leading the charge most effectively, his jet black hair wild over his shoulders. Realizing I was tarrying with the thought, I set to work.
The Marquess was sitting forward and talking animatedly about governance. I placed the tea and implements thereof and began to pour. The Marquess continued and I realized they were not talking about politics at all, but instead something more fundamental.
“We agree then that rationality is governed by aspects both above and below it. Instinct, surely, lay beneath it, just as the hounds hunt the boar, but could it not be above as well? Consider how Samson slew the lion with his bare hands. God empowered Samson through seemingly base instinct and His will was done.”
By now I was done pouring and I stood for a second in case either might request milk or lemon. My lord waved me away without looking at me and began replying to the Marquess. I stepped away and returned to the hallway, the doorway to the stair and finally down to the kitchen. A stocked three-tiered stand had been prepared and set on the wooden servant’s table. There were scones on top, tea sandwiches in the middle and cookies on bottom. I lifted it onto my tray and began to carry it upstairs.
“Oh you hold it right there, you can’t be forgetting these.” Mrs. Patmoore glowered and shuffled over to me. She placed a small dish of mints onto the draw beside the stand.
“You know I had these ready since yesterday luncheon, don’t you be letting them go to waste now. You hearing me girl? Don’t be letting no marquess fill your head with nonsense. You think I do not hear the rumours? I know bloody well how the lasses fall for him. You just do what you’re supposed to and make no fuss. It ain’t your place.”
I smiled “You’re right, thank you Mrs. Patmoore.”
“Yes yes, get you on now.”
I walked up the stairs with a smile. Mrs. Patmoore could sometimes seem like she was mean, a bully even, but it was just her way. Underneath that veneer she was always looking out for all of us. We all knew that and loved her.
When I stepped back into the drawing room the discussion had changed. Now they were talking about taxes. Too high, I thought to myself and set out the snacks and mints. The Marquess noticed the latter and took one.
“Oh, so news of my greatest of loves has preceded me, thank you!”
He looked me in the eye with an incredibly charming smile. I smiled, looked down and curtsied. When I looked back up he was still smiling at me. It was too much, I knew it was too much and that I should leave, but I stayed. My heart was hammering. Then I was brought back to my senses.
“Thank you, you are dismissed.” Said my lord. He wasn’t looking at me. He didn’t appear to notice the Marquess’s indiscretion either.
“Yes milord.” I curtsied again, quicker this time, and took my leave.
* * *
It was dark out when I returned to pick up the dishes. The Marquess was standing at one of our windows looking outside. What could he possibly be looking for?
The clink of dishes must have told him he wasn’t alone because he turned and looked at me then back outside.
“Have you ever wanted to take off that uniform?” He paused. “I often think of taking off this jacket and being something else. It’s the shell that forces me to be.” The marquess paused again and looked at me seriously.
Take off my uniform? Was he suggesting what I thought he was? How improper! Yet…
“If I were to wear livery and wait upon a lord, would I not become a footman? If I were to take a rifle and put on a uniform, would I not become a soldier? And you, if you were to put on a dress of a lady and entertain company, would you not be just that?” He turned to look at me. I couldn’t maintain that stare. I looked away.
“Well My Lord,” I paused. I wasn&rsquo
;t sure if I should be candid or keep my place. Normally I’d opt to be restrained, but the way he was looking at me so expectantly emboldened me. “Well no, frankly. If you were to dress me up as a Lady I would still just be me. Every girl dreams of being a princess, yes, but that does not mean we are one. We are who we are and that is all.”
His face softened into a smile.
“Precisely. You affirm me even if you do not realize it,” he replied. “ Do you think we’re so different, you and I? We were born into different lives. That’s all. It could just as easily be you, me and me, you.”
He turned away and resumed his post at the window. I picked up the rest of the dishes and left as quietly as I could.
* * *
I woke up in the middle of the night. I had been dreaming about being in a dark, dark forest. I was far from home and I wanted to be there as soon as possible. There was more but it had whispered away into the darkness like smoke.
I looked across the room to the other bed to see if I had woke Beth, my roommate. It was so dark that I couldn’t tell with my eyes, but her breathing told me she was still fast asleep. I carefully peeled back my duvet, stood up and walked to the window. There was barely any moonlight shining through the curtains. I slid the curtains open and looked up at the black night sky. The stars were bright and shining. I thought about how, ever since I was a little girl, I would look at the night sky and see the stars, like little points of reference. Distant points of something. Now I barely saw them. Instead I saw all the empty blackness in between. It was so huge. Massive. How could I not have noticed it before? How could it be that none of us noticed it? I felt like I was falling up, sinking into the spaces in between, crushed and small.