Sunday, August 7, 2011
Slave of Fortune
Chapter I: A CHANGE OF EMPLOYMENT
“You little ninny, Warnock. I told you to polish the fish knives, not give them an idle dusting! Look at those traces of tarnish in the handles! I want them burnished until you can see your silly face in them, miss. Do you understand?"
“Yes, Mrs Beacon. I’m sorry, Mrs Beacon.”
The young woman flinched involuntarily as the housekeeper clattered a large tray of silver cutlery down upon the scullery table. She wondered what the master and mistress would say if they knew their valuable tableware was being so brutally mistreated.
“Sorry didn’t build the Empire. On with it, girl. I shall return in one hour to inspect your work.”
The large woman in grey stalked out of the small, dark room, closing the door behind her with a slight bang. Staccato footsteps retreated down the corridor, then silence. McGeever, the young Irish scullery maid, looked up from her task, preparing beetroot. The palms of her hands were stained bright pink. She smiled, consolingly.
“We calls her Bacon on accounts of her being such a pig.”
Warnock simply nodded, her dark eyes fixed upon the scullery door. Eventually, she shrugged slightly and, picking up a fish knife, began to rub with as much vigour as she could muster from her cold and aching form. It had been a long night, tossing and turning in the creaking old bed with the sagging mattress, with McGeever’s icy feet occasionally pressing against the backs of her calves like a pair of flaccid semi-frosted fish. Maybe she would knit the girl a pair of bed socks. Christ, it was freezing. McGeever appeared to be in a chatty mood. Her strong, broad fingers worked on, cutting off the tops and trailing roots of the beets, scrubbing the purple globes free of dirt. She had spread an old cloth across her knees to prevent her pinny from getting stained.
“It must seem very quiet for you here in the country, after London. I have cousins in London but I’ve never seen the place. Been to Dublin, though.”
Warnock shivered and lifted the knife she was polishing up to the yellow light from the hissing gas mantle. The sun wasn’t even up yet. Darkness pressed against the four small panes of the tiny window set high on the scullery wall.
“I’ll get used to it. The air is fresh here. The city can be hard on your chest, especially when there’s a fog comes up from the river.”
The young woman paused to examine her diminutive reflection in the silvered surface of the knife’s blade. McGeever snorted and wiped her hands on the rag with an impatient gesture.
“You’ll have no time for primping here! What work did they set you to do in London, then? Doesn’t look as if you’ve spent much time with the cutlery. You’ll be at that all day and old Ma Bacon will be apoplectic by tea time.”
“Will she now?”
Warnock breathed on the knife, a fine coating of mist briefly clouding the reflection of her deep brown eyes. Idly, she wondered how long it would be before McGeever or the housekeeper or anyone else discovered her guilty secret. She was unmarried but not a maid in any sense of the word. Well, she had better learn and learn fast. She looked up just in time to catch a sharp look from the Irish girl, who put down her basin and stood up, the beet-stained cloth slowly falling to the cold, flagged floor.
“I’m going to show you something and it’s for your own good.”
McGeever’s round cheeks were shiny and flushed almost as deeply as the root vegetables in her bowl. Her hair was thick and dark, her mouth as small and round as the spout of a teapot. Warnock watched the other girl impassively as she began to lift up the hem of her skirt. Layers of white petticoats were hoisted to reveal dimpled knees and plump thighs.
“You’re not wearing any drawers.”
She had to remember to sound at least a little bit shocked, although going without drawers was a common enough folly where she had just come from. McGeever bit her bottom lip and turned around to face the wall, simultaneously raising her skirts to waist level. Warnock saw.
“You’ve been caned, Mary.”
The young girl’s fleshy white buttocks were liberally striped with livid scarlet welts. Abruptly, she let her skirts fall and her face glowed redder than ever as she resumed her seat on the hard wooden chair. When she finally spoke, her voice had diminished to a pale shadow of its former self.
“Be warned, Lily. If you don’t pull your weight in this household, you’ll get as much – or worse.”
Ah, but I already know all about that little game.
“So, is it Mrs Beacon who delivers the sore bottoms?”
Oddly enough, she already knew the answer, before the Irish girl had time to reply.
“Oh no, that bitch’s bark is worse than her bite, thank heavens. No, it’s Mr Gerrard, the butler, who sees to the disciplining of staff. I did a bad job of black-leading the grate in his sitting room last Wednesday morning. Jesus, I thought I’d never be able to sit down again. I swear it felt as if I’d been stung on the bum by a nest of hornets!”
Lily had made a swift assessment of Mr Gerrard the previous evening when she arrived. He was a large man, somewhat portly, with a bulbous, purplish nose that suggested a penchant for imbibing spirits. His bushy eyebrows met in the middle and he frequently consulted a large pocket watch. She had to remember to be frightened, to be totally aghast.
“You poor thing, Mary McGeever. I swear I’d faint clean away if he tried to do that to me.”
Mary resumed her work with the beets.
“Just be warned, that’s all. I don’t know what kind of easy, fancy ways you’ve been used to in your London town house, but you’d better pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”
Easy, fancy ways…
Smiling slightly, Lily began to polish with a vengeance, her mind firmly fixed upon her former home.
“My dear, a rose by any name could never smell as sweet as little Miss Lily here.”
The gentleman was an American and clumsily charming in the typical manner of his countrymen. He stood in the doorway of the dimly lit bedroom, swaying slightly with an excess of fine wine and after dinner port. Behind him, Mrs Jakes lingered, deftly tucking the guinea he’d proffered into the recesses of her small velvet bag.
“I think you’ll find this girl meets your requirements, sir. However, we do have a house rule concerning excessive marking of the flesh. If you beat her so she cannot work for a few days, you must pay more to cover our loss.”
The madam’s scarlet mouth seemed garish in the soft light of the room and her bombazine dress crackled slightly as she withdrew, exchanging a knowing look with the man who merely nodded politely and cleared his throat. Lily waited quietly, knowing that very soon the deceptive stillness would become a violent storm. She understood sadists.
“Are you a good girl, sweet Lily?”
Already his voice had changed, as swiftly as he closed the door behind him and casually tossed his hat upon a chair. Lily kept her eyes upon the ivory backs of her hands, which were demurely crossed upon her lap. She replied immediately yet softly.
This was a familiar game, the game of cat and mouse, always the same but for some minor twist in theme. Schoolmaster and errant pupil, cruel husband and virgin bride. The American did not remove his gloves.
“Oh? All girls must be good girls. The penalty for sin must be severe.”
Her voice had diminished to the faintest whisper and she realised that her heart had begun to beat like a drum. The body knows before the mind takes in what is to come. He was a monster, this Colonial, with his Southern twang. Why, he probably kept slaves, real life slaves and maybe he even beat them too. She slid to her knees on the rug beside the large and opulent bed. Subservience would please this arrogant oaf.
“Did I tell you to kneel, Miss Lily?”
The American moved around the bed and took a handful of the young woman’s soft dark hair. She cried out in pain as he sharply tugged her head back and slapped her several times across the face.
“Little bitch. Worthless little bitch. What are you?”
“I’m a worthless little bitch, sir.”
She loathed such humiliation but went through the motions of her act, moist eyes downcast to gaze at the swirling pattern of the Turkish rug. Large, slightly moist hands tore at the flimsy bodice of her nightgown, rapidly exposing her round, firm breasts to the warm air of the bedroom. Steely fingers pinched her nipples hard and, despite herself, she moaned softly.
“Slut. Worthless slut.”
“Use me, then.”
She couldn’t believe she had uttered those words, a red rag to the bull that towered over her cowering form. The American raised one eyebrow quizzically at such a forward outburst.
“Oh, I shall, Miss Lily. Believe me, I shall.”
The next thing she knew, she was lifted up and thrown down upon the bed, so violently that it knocked the wind out of her and she could barely catch her breath. The heavy mahogany posts of the headboard collided with the bedroom wall and Lily gasped as gloved hands found her throat and began to squeeze relentlessly.
“Insolent whore. Why, I could rid this earth of a piece of bad business in just the twinkling of an eye, my dear child.”
His voice was as soft and sibilant as the faint hiss of gas in the mantle on the bedroom wall. Darkness was rising, a velvety pool of inky oblivion. She was beyond screaming, her heartbeat a heavy pulse which filled her ears to overflowing. Blood suffused her face and her hands fluttered impotently against the scarlet silk of the counterpane.