When Florie Wilks arrived at Mullings to work as a kitchen maid, she saw herself stepping not only into a world of grandeur, but one poised thrillingly on the ledge between reality and the sort of transporting fiction she loved. She couldn't count the number of such books she'd devoured at the risk of being told by her furious father that the next time she wasted a tallow candle staying up half the night reading he'd send her to live with nasty Aunt Aggie.
Carrying her small bundle of possessions on arrival day, she passed through the iron gates and was waved on by the lodge keeper towards the servants' entrance. Alas for her wide-eyed dreams, she was soon to discover that bricks and mortar, coupled with extensive acreage, do not always make for a world abounding in heroes and heroines.
With its velvet lawns, formal gardens, expansive woodlands, serenading waterfalls and productive home farm, Mullings was the acknowledged great house of Dovecote Hatch. Nonetheless, it had long been the conviction of the neighbouring gentry that the Stodmarsh family, which had inhabited the estate from one generation to the next since its beginnings, must be counted hereditarily a sadly dull lot. In the broad scheme of things, this view had validity. England had long flourished or floundered without members of the Stodmarsh family being accorded honors for valor or hanged for villainy. Within an hour of her arrival, Florie was to discover that throughout the generations not one riotous scandal or harrowing melodrama had occurred within the boundaries of Mullings to wend its way into local, let alone national, lore. She was promptly informed by the housekeeper that there were no tales to be told of unfaithful wives tossed off the roof, no insane persons locked in turrets, no duels fought with either swords or pistols in the murky first light of dawn, no daughters gambled away into wedlock with debauched old men by their profligate fathers' reverses at the gaming table. A pity the same could not be said of other leading families who she wouldn't name!
In the view of those who gladly boasted of their rollicking forebears' escapades, the Stodmarshes' failure to live life to the hilt would have been their affair, had their mopish propriety not cast a pall over any social event in which they participated. The men did not foxhunt, revere their tailors or know a damn thing about poker. They handled the running of their properties themselves without the aid of an estate manager, and even when young their conversation was jeeringly found to be middle-aged, running the gamut from farming to the need to repair the church roof. As for the Stodmarsh females, it was a source of much drawing room tittering and chortling that they were either petulant pansies or dismal dahlias not worth being plucked.
Had Florie heard these comments, she would have thought them very unkind (even though she would have been disappointed that the Stodmarsh women were not considered as beauties scattering male conquests like silk scarves in their wake). Just the sort of thing nasty Aunt Aggie would say in different words: 'All of a bunch, squint-eyed or saggy-bottomed, take your pick.'
There was one meagre mercy. The critics – chief of whom were the Blakes of The Manor in Large Middlington, the Stafford-Reids of Hidden Meadows in Small Middlington, and the Palfretts of Chimneys in Kingsbury Knox – could not accuse the Stodmarshes of viewing themselves as scholarly. An announced familiarity with Virgil, an impassioned interest in the history of the Belgian Congo, or even – God forbid – the ability to haltingly list all the kings and queens of England from Ethelred the Unready to present times would only have served to shove them higher up the ladder of the most crushing bores the glory of Britain had ever produced. Leave the pontificating to politicians and parsons! The Blakes in particular believed the increasing association of brains with success in trade made displaying more than a modicum of intelligence smack of a coarseness verging on blatant vulgarity.
Florie would have been surprised to discover this attitude. She had been brought up to believe that her betters, whilst knowing how to frolic with style, were far cleverer than any ordinary person could ever hope to be. Else, why would God have put them in charge of things?
The Blakes, Stafford-Reids and Palfretts acknowledged this superiority as a fact, not a view, but that didn't mean one had to go around pondering the universe all day. What thought must necessarily be expended by a gentleman beyond crushing the bloody impudence of the lower classes, and instilling in their sons the virtue of doggedly sowing their wild oats before ardently beseeching the hand in marriage of a woman of beauty, breeding and fortune? The desire for one's girls to make spectacular, or at the very least creditable marriages, perhaps burned more fiercely in the maternal than the paternal bosom.
The Stodmarshes had husbanded their wealth well and, lacking charm or wit had, as already observed, done nothing to bring dishonour on their name. Yet no Blake or Stafford-Reid parent had ever encouraged, let alone endeavoured to coerce, an offspring into marriage with a Stodmarsh. The very idea was unthinkable ... intolerable. Every celebration, every funeral henceforth ruined! One could laugh if the prospect were not so wretched.
Tales of forbidden love would have been right up Florie's alley. Growing up, she had thrilled to her mother's stories about her own days in service, before she had been married, with a titled family named Tamersham in Northumbria. Their illustrious ancestral home had possessed a moat, turrets and battlements, a portcullis and, casting an even more alluring spell, an old man with long, matted hair and beard dressed in a rough-spun robe dwelling in a cave in a wooded embankment. He was not there by happenstance – Sir Peregrine Tamersham had adhered to a tradition of employing ornamental hermits – although Florie's mother mistakenly believed this to be a fascinating eccentricity peculiar only to that family.
This whimsical folly dated back to the eighteenth century, when some of the upper-crust believed no self-indulgence could be too ridiculous, in keeping up with the Jones-Joneses. Advertisements appeared for male persons willing to serve in such a capacity. Essential requirements for an ornamental hermit included never cutting his hair, beard or nails, and upon leaving his shelter he meandered with his head bowed above an open Bible. The very air around him was steeped in saintly melancholy. It was a delightful fillip for house guests to espy him amidst the groves or by a woodland stream, as it was incumbent on him to ensure they did. He was not hard done by. Nature provided water, and food was brought to him from the house, but he was strictly forbidden from exchanging a single word with the servants.
As a child, Florie had loved listening to her mother's stories, and had particularly thrilled to the image of the pious ancient drawn so vividly by her mother. Oh, to work in such a place! She could not expect Mullings to possess this rare entrancement, but she had hoped for others. Perhaps a private cemetery where wisps of something more than mist drifted up from the graves at dusk, gathering shape and purpose as they slipped across the grounds to seep through walls and windows, back to where they rightfully belonged. Who would not wish to cling, however vaporously, to a world forever glittering with merriment or plunging into thrilling turmoil, where the days swirled from one to the next in a dazzle of privilege? Of course, Florie didn't put it that way to herself as a little girl. But many years later, as housekeeper of Mullings, she would spread it out as such in a letter to her cousin Hattie Fly in London.
The fourteen-year-old Florie who had arrived at the servants' entrance to Mullings, tremulous with anticipation, had looked as much a ghost as any she had hoped to glimpse in a richly appointed corridor or on a dark turn of the stairs. The mature Florie was wont to smile, albeit ruefully, at such starry-eyed simplicity.
Mrs Longbrow, the housekeeper in 1900 when Florie arrived, having reduced Florie to a squeak and nod of the head, continued making it clearer than glass for the next five minutes that the Stodmarshes were the worthiest of county families. They did not indulge in escapades or tantrums.
'So there'll be no point in attempting to listen at keyholes.'
'No, Mrs Longbrow.' A dipped curtsy.
'Not that you'll have reason to leave the kitchen, except to go outside to the privy, until bedtime.'
'Yes, Mrs Longbrow.' Another dip. Within another half hour Florie had learned that the lord's Christian name was Edward and Lady Stodmarsh's was Lillian. They had two sons – Lionel, aged fifteen, and William, only eleven months younger.
'Both bode well to follow solidly in their father's footsteps. Never a scrap of trouble from either of them since the cradle.'
The consolation for this depressing information was being told to sit down before being handed a cup of the best tea Florie had ever tasted. At home in the cramped house twelve miles away, the amount of leaves that went into the pot could have been counted out, and when the situation demanded they were re-brewed until there was little or no colour or flavour left.
In the course of that first day at Mullings, Florie's hope that the stories she would one day be able to tell of her years in service began to dim around the edges. The spurt of interest aroused on hearing that Lord Stodmarsh had possessed a youthful enthusiasm for putting on theatricals in the gallery was quickly doused.
'He long ago abandoned such ideas, which did rather worry his father, to concentrate devotedly on overseeing the estate, which includes Farn Deane, the home farm. Lord and Lady Stodmarsh used to attend the occasional play in London, but she's no longer fit for the journey.'
'I'm sorry to hear it, Mrs Longbrow.'
'No life's without its sorrows, as the vicar enjoys reminding us from the pulpit. Well, Florie, standing here feeling sorry for our good lady won't bring her improvement. There's the larder shelves still to be done and the vegetables peeled for Mrs McDonald.' Mrs McDonald, the cook, had never been married; the Mrs was a courtesy befitting her position in the household. Though immensely proud of her Scottish heritage, she'd not once been further north than Yorkshire.
'I've already seen to both, Mrs Longbrow.'
'Then you can help get the soup on.' This said, the housekeeper swept away to have a word with the head housemaid about turning the library carpet, something that was done every three months to even the wear.
The poor health that often kept Lady Stodmarsh confined to her bedroom turned out to be nothing more interesting than rheumatism – not a chronic violent hysteria that would have required her door being locked from the outside. The sons were red-haired, fair-skinned and blue-eyed. Boys of that description could, unfairly or not, never grow up to be unflinchingly heroic or fascinatingly ignoble. Red hair might even mean ginger. Undoubtedly there would be freckles. The death knell to dreams indeed!
And yet, for a girl prepared to make the best of things, there were indications of compensations at Mullings. Mrs Longbrow, though strict sounding, did not seem unkind; the butler looked a little like Florie's father. Mrs McDonald was red-faced without looking scarily fierce, and the lesser members of the staff (though all far above herself on the importance ladder) seemed willing to welcome Florie into their midst. During the evening meal, a feast of sausages, pork pie, bubble and squeak, and apple Charlotte, Lady Stodmarsh's lady's maid smiled at her. The bootboy winked.
By the end of the week Florie was included, somewhat hoveringly, in the other girls' giggling chatter in those rare free moments between scrubbing, polishing, sweeping, fetching and carrying. She missed her parents and younger brother and sister, but wasn't homesick. A fortnight later the bootboy had asked if she would go with him to the Dovecote Hatch Summer Fair. She wasn't put off by his impishly cocksure manner; she rather liked him for it, but she wasn't ready for holding hands, let alone kissing, so she encouraged him to take the other kitchen maid instead. She was sure it was Betty he really fancied, but was afraid she'd toss her head and tell him he had a nerve to think she'd be seen out with him. Betty was pretty enough to be pert. Florie wasn't, not even in her best dress with the collar daintily stitched from two lace-edged handkerchiefs given to her mother as a wedding present by the titled lady in Northumbria.
The looking glass didn't tell fibs. She was overly tall and reed-thin, with a pale, narrow face and hair that, though thick, could not have been described as anything other than mousy. And there was something else to cause diffidence. Her passionate love of reading made her different from many other young people of her class. A vivid imagination stirred by her mother's storytelling led to her grasping for any book she could lay her hands on, from penny dreadfuls to Jane Austen, Thackeray, the Brontës, and Dickens; and then there was poetry, especially Keats and Shelley. The elderly bookseller three streets away from her home had at first sold her badly worn copies for a penny and then begun giving them to her because he said her smiles brightened his week. Not something to be talked about if you didn't want to be thought above yourself. She had learned to guard against using big words or allowing her grammar to veer into something better than that spoken around her. She must be even more careful at Mullings. A kitchen maid seeming to give herself airs would have laid herself open to ridicule anywhere, devastatingly so in the world below stairs. Far better to be viewed as awkwardly shy.
Fortunately she was kept too busy scurrying to complete two or three tasks at once to worry about much else. By the time she crawled into bed in the box-like room she shared with Betty she was tired out, but never unhappy. She knew she was giving satisfaction, especially to Mrs McDonald, whom she'd once overheard saying to Mrs Longbrow, 'That Florie has a quick mind in addition to getting more out of five minutes than Betty ever could in an hour.'
Florie did not catch a glimpse of Lord Stodmarsh until a month after her arrival when she was about to leave by the woodland path at the rear of the house for her first day off. He was crossing a stretch of lawn with a golden Labrador at his side. She had learned that he was in his late thirties, but his burly build, grizzled hair, side whiskers and drooping moustache made him look almost elderly to her youthful eye. Seeing her, he raised his hat and inclined his head in her direction. It was a courtly gesture at odds with the less than patrician appearance. She was so surprised she almost tripped over her feet in fumbling a curtsy. This was something – small but still exciting – to tell her mother on reaching home.
In the coming years her opinion of Lord Stodmarsh as a kind and considerate man was confirmed, as was the case with Lady Stodmarsh in her gentle way. When Florie's father died unexpectedly, Mrs Longbrow told her that the master and mistress wished to see her in the drawing room to express their sympathy. She returned to the kitchen additionally heartened by permission to go home for a week without loss of wages. On every Christmas Day each member of the staff was presented with a gift, handkerchiefs or gloves, and on New Year's Eve the entire staff was invited into the hall for a celebratory cup of punch.
By the age of twenty-four Florie was head housemaid and had gained sufficient assurance of being liked and respected at Mullings to no longer feel the need to conceal the fact that much of her free time was spent reading. Indeed, on encountering Lord Stodmarsh outside Craddock's Antiquarian Bookshop one Saturday afternoon, she unhesitatingly responded to his enquiry as to what she had purchased by showing him the volume – a copy of The Tempest.
'Ah, yes!' his eyes revealed a wistful gleam. 'When I was a very young man we performed that play at the house. I played Prospero. Wonder where my costume for that part and others went! I expect up to some trunk in the attics. We Stodmarshes have always been loath to throw away anything that might one day be put back to use, even a hundred years hence! Good day to you, Florie. I trust you find your mother well if you are about to go and visit her.' How could some members of the gentry regard him as a buffoon? He hesitated before adding, 'I hear you and the younger Norris boy are courting. I consider you both fortunate.'