“Amelia. Amelia Brown. Where are you?”
I pulled my hands from the chill depths of the stone sink and wiped their numbness on the front of my pinny as I walked around the corner of the scullery into the kitchen and halted in front of the tall, bony figure of Ashton Manor’s housekeeper.
“I’m here, Mrs. Price.”
Mrs. Price peered at me over the top of half-glasses perched on her beak of a nose and sniffed. “Are the saucepans from lunch clean? The china from afternoon tea?”
The material of my dress cut into my armpit as I breathed in to speak. I pulled on the side seam of my bodice and eased the fabric away from my chafed skin. “Yes, Mrs. Price. I’ve just finished.”
My movement provided some relief under my arm but tightened the material around my waist and I wriggled. Mrs. Price frowned.
“Amelia, kindly stand still when I’m talking to you. Why are you so pink in the face?”
I pulled on the front of my dress and shift to try to find a little room inside, so my chest could expand. “My clothes are too tight.”
Mrs. Price looked at the stretched stitches on the side seam of my dress. “Are your laces tied at the end of their length?”
I nodded. “Yes, Mrs. Price. I can loosen them no farther.”
“Yes, well…I believe it’s your name-day?”
“Yes, Mrs. Price. I turned nineteen today.”
“Are you sure? I wouldn’t have put you at more than fourteen when I took you on as a tweenie maid last year.” Mrs. Price’s gaze moved down to my toes then back to my head. “Still, even I can see you’ve grown quite considerably since then.”
“Yes, I’m sure, Mrs. Price. The day of my birth is written in the bible at home. I’ve grown this last year, I’m afraid.”
Mrs. Price sniffed. “You can read?”
“Yes, Mrs. Price. I’ve had some schooling.”
“Yes, well…you may have a larger dress and shifts today, as it’s your name-day. Come and see me before supper. Now tidy that hair back under your cap and go and find Ellen to attend to the fires Above Stairs.”
I wound a strand of my hair around my finger and tucked it under my cap. Mrs. Price walked away, her black dress rustling, and I let myself out of the kitchen door into the back yard. Cold February air wrapped itself around my body and I shivered as I trotted through damp mizzle to the sound of clunks on metal toward the glow of the oil lamp sitting on the ground by the coal shed. Ellen shoveled a last scoop into the second of two coal scuttles as I arrived.
“Ellen, you’ve filled mine for me. I thank you.”
Ellen smiled as she put the shovel inside the coal shed and latched its door. “Well, as it’s your birthday…”
I tugged on my dress and sucked in what air I could. “Mrs. Price says I may have another dress and shifts tonight. I can’t wait. I can hardly breathe.”
“I know. One set a year isn’t enough, is it? You do know you’ve got to give the ones you’re wearing back to Mrs. Price for the next maid who would fit them?”
“She’ll be welcome to them.” I winced. I gripped my scuttle handle with both hands. “Ready?”
Ellen nodded, turned down the wick of the lamp and grasped hers. I tensed my arm muscles, heaved my scuttle upward and followed her through the back yard toward the yellow glow of the oil lamp sitting on the kitchen window sill. Mrs. Price, sitting at the long, wooden table I scrubbed daily, looked up from counting a pile of linen napkins in front of her as we staggered in.
“Plenty of time before the dressing gong,” she said. “Make sure you’re finished and back Below Stairs when you hear it.”
I followed Ellen to the green, baize-covered door that led to the flights of wooden servants’ stairs that allowed us access to the upper floors of the Family’s living quarters of Ashton Manor. Six flights later, I stood beside her, puffed and rested my scuttle. Ellen pushed open the green swing-hinge door that separated the realm of servant from that of Family and peeked around it.
“No sign of any of them,” she said over her shoulder.
I hefted my scuttle and stepped around her onto the softness of red carpet, walked with her into a hallway of closed, polished wooden doors illuminated by whiter light from the cleaner burn of paraffin lamps suspended by chains overhead and my dress pinched me again.
“Thank the Lord. It’s quicker when they’re not in their bedrooms, and I could do with quick tonight,” I puffed out.
Ellen stopped walking and looked me. “Your face is awfully pink. You stop here on the Bachelors’ wing and just do His Lordship’s. I’ll run down and do the three Ladies’.”
“Ellen, that’s kind of you. I’ll do your potty duty tomorrow morning. I’ll be well by then, once I can catch my breath again.”
Ellen grinned. “Fires in exchange for chamber pots? I’ll take that trade anytime, I thank you. I’ll meet you behind the green door on the half-landing when we’ve finished.”
Ellen walked up the hallway toward the Ladies’ bedrooms. I tapped on His Lordship’s door, received no answer and opened it to find the side lamps lit, as well as the ceiling fitting. I left the door open behind me as I walked in, a signal to the room’s occupant that a servant—other than his valet, Mr. Hubert—was in his room, should he return to it.
The pain shot through my ribcage as I put my scuttle down, knelt before the fire and stretched forward to rake the hot coals with the poker. My ears filled with a soft buzz and the flicker of the flames hazed before my eyes. I sat back on my heels and breathed in as deep my dress would allow when it dawned on me how close I had come to passing out face-down into the fire.
I looked over my shoulder and heard only silence from the hallway, so reached into the scooped neckline of my dress and unfastened the first few buttons of my modesty shift. My breasts billowed upward into a décolleté normally only seen on the Ladies of the house when dressed for a ball, but the cramp in my ribs eased and my vision settled. I bent forward and re-applied the poker, listening for the sound of a footstep or the dressing gong, glanced backward to pull the scuttle closer and saw a pair of male legs encased in buckskin riding breeches and soft-soled leather boots walk into the room.
I pinched my shift together as best I could with one hand, kept my back turned and carried on working the poker with the other, as if I hadn’t seen a Lord enter the room, while I tried to think of a way to get my breasts decently covered again without my doing so being noticed.
“Will you be much longer?” he asked.
“My apologies, My Lord. I didn’t hear the dressing gong.”
“It hasn’t been rung yet. I’m early.”
The whisper of leather footwear on the move warned me I had no time to consider any discreet option. I weighed the idea of making a dash for the door, looked down at my chest and realized even more breast would be exposed if I jumped up to run, so decided that if I was to be discovered with more than an appropriate amount of flesh on display, it was not going to be while I was on the floor kneeling at anyone’s feet.
I hung the poker alongside the other fire irons, stood and tipped the scuttle toward the flames then reached for my buttons and looked sideways at the boy, grown into a man, that I hadn’t been this close to since I was seven years old. I saw no hint of recognition in his eyes, although they widened slightly as his gaze dropped to my open frontage. I recalled his attention to my face.
“If you wouldn’t mind averting your eyes, My Lord.”
A gleam of amusement lightened the blue of Damion’s irises as he raised his gaze from my chest.
“I’d rather not. I believe I’m enjoying the view.”
My heart thumped. I squared my shoulders as the servant in me sensed the offer of a quick tumble coming my way, and the woman I had been a year ago stiffened her spine and turned the offer aside in the manner I would have done then.
“Hardly befitting conduct, Sir. But as the fault is mine, enjoy away.”
I put my hand on my breasts, pushed them inside my shift, refastened my buttons and picked up my scuttle.
Damion smiled. “It might have been more enjoyable if you’d permitted me to do that for you.”
I didn’t lower my gaze as I dipped my curtsey. “I thank you for your kind offer, Sir, but I believe I must decline. I do have a prior evening engagement that will amuse me more.”
I stepped around him. “With the pans in the scullery that have just been used to provide your dinner.”
I walked out of the room and Damion’s soft laughter followed me, along with the hope that the sound of it meant the boy I had known had retained his sense of humor and Mrs. Price wouldn’t be calling me to her room shortly to tell me to pack my box because of my cheek. She looked at me as I entered the kitchen.
“Ah, Amelia. Relieve yourself of your scuttle and come with me.”
I put my scuttle outside the kitchen door, took a short breath in and followed her along the length of the drafty corridor to her sitting room. She walked over to a large cupboard and I let my breath escape as she opened the door to shelves of folded clothing.
“Try the dresses against yourself. Find one of better fit with enough give in the laces for farther expansion.”
Mrs. Price reached in and shook creases from folded dresses and I held them against me until we found one that seemed roomy enough, along with two white cotton modesty shifts to wear beneath it.
“Let me have your old clothes back tomorrow.”
“I thank you, Mrs. Price. I will.”
Mrs. Price peered at me over the top of her glasses. “I didn’t realize your age until you said it this morning, Amelia. It’s not fitting that you’re still a tweenie maid at nineteen. I have two positions vacant at the moment—laundry maid or under parlor maid. You’ve worked hard this year, so I will let you choose.”
It took me no longer than ten seconds to make up my mind. A parlor maid’s work was comprised of lighter duties than those in the laundry, but laundry maids worked mainly Below Stairs and out of the way of any visitors or house guests to Ashton Manor who might have seen me in more recent times than Damion and his family and would still recognize my face.
“I’d like the position of laundry maid, please.”
Mrs. Price’s eyes widened. “You’re sure?”
“Yes. I thank you. It’s the soap. I like to have clean hands.”
Mrs. Price sniffed. “Well, if you’re sure, pack your box and move out of the tweenies’ bedroom and in with Molly. You may have one half-day a week to yourself without duties and an extra two guineas a year.”
My heart lifted at the unexpected offer of extra salary, and I smiled. “I thank you, Mrs. Price. I like Molly. She was kind to me when I first came here, and two more guineas will be welcome.”
Mrs. Price returned my smile. “You’re a good girl, despite your tendency to laugh at odd moments, Amelia. Now run along. Staff supper will be served shortly.”
I left Mrs. Price, ran to the kitchen, pressed my back against the wall for James and Bert to pass me with their hands full of jellies, blancmanges and a display of crystallized fruits to take Above Stairs for the Family’s final remove and resigned myself to a last meal of pinched discomfort as the kitchen table filled for staff supper and dinner service came to an end for the Family. I sat beside Molly and pushed my bundle of new clothes under my chair.
“I can move into your bedroom with you tonight, Molly. I’m your new laundry maid.”
Molly grinned at me, her smile wide but gappy from a missing eye-tooth she’d had to have pulled three months before.
“Well done, Amelia. Happy birthday. Shall I help you move your things after supper?”
“Yes, please, and my thanks, Molly. It will be lovely to share a bedroom with just you instead of being in with three others.”
Mrs. Oates watched the table fill as James, Bert and Mr. Bennett returned from serving the dessert course Above Stairs, pulled a heavy copper pan from the warming oven, brought it to the table and released the savory smell of rabbit stew when she took the lid off and placed it before Mrs. Price for her to serve.
Mrs. Price sat at one end of the table, Mr. Bennett at the other, and I closed my eyes as he stood and intoned Grace. Mrs. Price ladled stew into thick pottery bowls and I dipped my spoon into one of the three hot meals a day that I now received, rather than the one sketchy offering daily that had been all my stepfather had allowed me before I’d left home and found my position at Ashton Manor.
The bell marked ‘dining room’ rang on the servants’ board on the wall as we finished eating. Mr. Bennett stood, along with James and Bert, and they left the kitchen to clear the table and serve brandy to the men while Mrs. Oates poured boiling water into the lidded jug standing on a silver salver for the Ladies to make their tea. I looked at Mrs. Price.
“Mrs. Price, may Molly and I be excused so I may move my possessions into my new bedroom, please?”
She sniffed and inclined her head. “You may, but make sure you say the goodnight prayer yourselves if you are not to be present when Mr. Bennett says it here.”
“Yes, Mrs. Price, we will,” Molly and I chorused.
I let the green door swing shut behind us and Molly giggled as we ran up flights of wooden stairs. “I don’t know about you, but it’s not Mr. Bennett that’s going to be in my prayers tonight. A kiss from James or Harry… That’s what I’ll be down on my knees and asking the heavens for.”
I laughed and side-swiped her arm. “Molly! What about poor Fred? You were kissing him behind the stables last week.”
Molly grinned. “And I’m going to kiss a few more, too, before I make up my mind who to walk out with.”