The House of Elyot

1888 Part 6

Posted on: February 9, 2011

The maidservant’s virtue is imperilled…

 

Molly Macaulay considered herself more fortunate than most young ladies of her class and background.  Brought up in the workhouse with her seven surviving siblings after her parents had been taken by the typhoid, she had assumed a future of penury and hardship would be unavoidable.

 

But then one day, she had somehow caught the eye of one of the Board of Guardians when he came on an inspection visit.  She could remember it as if it were yesterday – she had been out front on her hands and knees, scrubbing at the flagstones in the yard.  A cold day, it was, and her hands were red raw from the bitter wind combined with the sudsy sloshing water.

 

The two Guardians crossed in front of her, in confabulation, when suddenly one of them stopped.  A tall, well-made man, dressed in the height of fashion with a most extraordinary waxed-moustache; why, you might think he was a Prince or Lord of some kind.

 

“You, girl.”  He turned back and approached her, at which she sat up straight on her heels and lifted her chin respectfully.  “How old are you?”

 

“Fifteen, Sir.”

 

“The same age as my own daughter,” he mused.  “How the Fates collude to raise up one and lower another.  What is your name?”

 

“Molly, Sir.  Molly Macaulay.”

 

“And are you a good girl, Molly?  Do you say your prayers?”

 

“Indeed I do, Sir, both morning and at night.”

 

“Well.”  He stroked his chin ruminatively for a moment.  “I believe that your fortunes may this day have taken a turn, Molly, for it so happens that I seek a lady’s maid for my daughter.  I shall speak to the workhouse Master and ascertain your suitability for the position.  Would that please you, Molly?”

 

“Oh, Sir!  Oh yes it would!”

 

Molly’s hazel eyes sparkled with an access of hope and excitement.  It was every workhouse girl’s dream to attain a position in a grand house, and surely this man’s house would be grand, judging by his attire.  And a handsome man, too, if a little old; past forty, she wouldn’t wonder.  It was interesting to note how money could make the years take a gentler toll on the face  – not many workhouse men lived to forty, and those that did were shattered ruins of humanity.

 

The very next day, Molly Macaulay sat in the hansom cab with her bundle of forlorn possessions, gazing out at the white pilasters and porticoes of Mayfair, on her way to the London residence of Mr Rupert Smythson Esq., Purveyor of Fine Goods and Sundries from the Oriental Colonies.   Her natural optimism was thrown vaguely off-kilter by the memory of the conversation she had had with her older sister before dropping off to sleep in their shared cot for the last time.

 

“You’re pretty, Moll, and that’s why he’s give you the position.  You wants to watch that ain’t the only position he’s got in mind.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Gawd, don’t you know nuffing?  There’s usually only one fing a fine gent wants a pretty girl for, Molly.  It’s what I’ll probably end me days doing if I ever wants to leave this place.”

 

“Jen, he’s a gentleman.  He wants a maid for his daughter, that’s all.”

 

“No, Moll, he wants a pretty maid for his daughter, else he wouldn’t have spoke to you at all.”

 

Molly dismissed the unease this recollection had introduced, noticing that the carriage was drawing to halt outside a very handsome mansion in Half Moon Street.  Her new home.  It certainly beat the Marylebone Workhouse.

 

*

 

Three years later, Molly was a shapely young woman of eighteen.  Jen’s dire prophecies had not been borne out; Mr Smythson – now Sir Rupert, after an elevation to a baronetcy in the 1887 New Year’s Honours – had left her to her business, scarcely even acknowledging her once she was properly settled into her post.

 

It wasn’t what you could call an exciting life, but there were good times to be had.  Florence was a nice enough girl, if a little aloof, but that was breeding, she supposed.  There was pleasant company below stairs, and a fine game to be had of fending off all her suitors among the livery lads and tradesmen.  She could have been married ten times over by now, if only she weren’t holding out for somebody better.

 

Clearing away the table after the evening’s earlier controversial dinner party, Molly allowed herself a smile, thinking of how she had sent the knife-grinder away with a flea in his ear.  Walking out with a knife-grinder; the very idea!  No, Molly’s heart was set on a gentleman and nothing less.

 

Low mumbles of conversation carried through now and again with the cigar smoke from the next room.  The gentlemen were indulging in brandy and a post-prandial smoke, as was their custom.  The lady of the house was in bed after another of her turns, and by all accounts, poor Florence was in disgrace.  She had sent Molly away when she had gone up to offer help with her preparations for bed, and her voice had been suspiciously unsteady.  It was probably nothing;  it was to be hoped that it would not disturb their plans for the operatic visit.  Here was Molly’s big chance to mingle with the quality and she was loth to let it go.

 

“…away from those confounded gaming houses.”  Molly’s ears pricked up; Lord Hunter-Fox had raised his voice, unusually for him.  Was there an argument taking place?

 

“…no need to concern yourself….Coutts…valued customer…No, Sir, I am conscious of that, of course!  But….”

 

Molly ducked down behind the table instinctively as the door opened with a bang and Lord Hunter-Fox, looking quite as terrifying as she had ever seen him, strode through the dining room, on his way out.

 

At the slam of the door and his firm footing on the stairs, she bobbed back up again, only to be confronted by the master of the house, leaning against the drawing room door jamb with a lopsided smile.  His hair was a little dishevelled and a half-full bottle of cognac dangled from his fingertips.

 

“Ah, my sweet Molly,” he slurred.  Molly blushed.  Over the last few weeks, she had been noticing him attending to her more and more.  “My little workhouse treasure.  Those pretty hands weren’t made for scrubbing flags.”

 

Molly was unsure how to respond to this inebriated flattery; she made a great clatter of gathering up the unused cutlery and smiled tightly.

 

“You’ve broken a few hearts down in the kitchens, I hear,” he persisted.

 

“Oh, no, I’m sure I have not, Sir.  Is my Lady feeling better?  Can I take her anything?”

 

“She’ll live,” drawled Sir Rupert with an expansive gesture of his arm that had a drop of finest Remy Martin spilling out of the bottleneck.  Molly clutched the silverware to her chest and looked for the most convenient door to the kitchens.  “Oh, don’t run, little turtle dove.  Stay awhile and share a drop with me.”

 

“I…ah…”

 

“Merely a little drink, Molly; you may never again have the chance to taste a liquor of this distinction.”  He smirked flirtatiously at her, pouring her a glass without attending to her reply.

 

“Well…I suppose a sip can’t hurt, Sir.”

 

Molly accepted the crystal goblet and followed her employer back into the withdrawing room.  She stood shyly at the centre of a fine Persian rug while Sir Rupert made himself comfortable in his favourite oxblood leather armchair.  She waited for him to give her permission to sit, but it seemed a great deal of time coming.  Instead he looked her up and down, settling back into the chair and baring his teeth in a vulpine smile.

 

“Do you remember the day I found you, Molly?”

 

“Indeed I do, Sir, and I am still everso grateful for it, believe me.”

 

“Yes, I believe you.”  Sir Rupert’s smile flickered and he raised a beckoning finger to his daughter’s maidservant.  “Over here, sweet thing.  Don’t be coy.  Come a little closer.”

 

Molly trod haltingly over what seemed acres of floor, keeping her eyes lowered, until she was a foot or so away from the reclining Baronet.

 

“Don’t you like my brandy?” he asked her teasingly.  “You have taken but a tiny sip.”

 

“Oh, it is very nice…I’m sure.”

 

Sir Rupert gave one thigh a portentous slap.  A half-gasp escaped Molly’s lips.

 

“Come and sit on my lap, girl.  I’ll show you how to appreciate fine brandy.  You hesitate – what, do you take me for a rogue?”

 

“Oh no, Sir,” said Molly in alarm, more fearful of offending the man who provided the roof for her head than of compromising her virtue.  She perched herself precariously on the roué’s knee, keeping her eyes studiously fixed on her glass until he braced an arm around her waist, pulling her closer, and tipped her chin upwards with his other hand.

 

“Now see, Molly,” he began, retrieving his brandy balloon from the side table, “this is how a gentleman approaches a fine spirit.  Do as I do.”  He swirled the warm golden liquid gently around its glass bowl and Molly copied the lazy wrist action of her captor.  Next she was encouraged to raise the glass to her nose and take a deep inhalation of what Sir Rupert seemed to think was a heavenly aroma.  To Molly it smelled rich, potent but with a harshness that made her wrinkle her nose, not at all sure she would find it palatable.  “Thus we determine the bouquet,” said Sir Rupert, somewhat bafflingly.  What did flowers have to do with it?  A nice mixed posy would certainly beat this worrisome drink in the fragrance stakes any day.  “Now take the merest drop on to your tongue….feel it burn itself on to your flesh until it dissolves, leaving only the tang of its fire…and now you can take a mouthful…”

 

Molly did so, and immediately began to splutter, wanting to spit the foul concoction back into its glass and rush to the kitchen for a swallow of cordial.

 

“Oh, Molly, no!  This is sacrilege!  Drink it down, pet, it will strengthen you.  Such a slip of a thing needs nourishment.  Come, waste is wicked, as we know.”

 

Molly nodded, somehow managing to rush the powerful brew down her throat from whence it could go and play merry hell with her stomach.

 

“And now it doesn’t seem so unpleasant, does it, turtle dove?” whispered Sir Rupert into her ear, and…oh…it was true.  A blushing warmth fanned out from her collar bone upwards, to tingle in her cheeks and sting her lips.  It was a giddy, almost confident feeling, and she smiled up at Sir Rupert, suddenly at ease and wanting him to know it.

 

He smiled back, fondly.  “Eighteen now, Molly?” he asked, arranging his fingers around the strings of her white frilled apron to hold her fast.  “No longer a girl.  My Florence will be introduced to Society in the spring, placed squarely on the marriage market.  Do you hope to marry soon, my dear?”

 

“Oh, not soon, I’m sure.”

 

“Take another sip; go on, don’t be shy.  No suitors on the horizon?  No favoured swains?”  Molly giggled and shook her head.  “Come now, a sweet little treasure like you?  I can’t believe that to be true.  Are you toying with me, Molly?”

 

“No, Sir!”  Molly gasped as Sir Rupert placed the palm of a hand on her fevered cheek, cupping it gently, intimately.

 

“Lady Adelaide’s health is so fragile,” he murmured.  “If only she had your constitution…your strength…your bloom… But she is so sickly these days, and a man sometimes needs…comfort…”

 

“Comfort, Sir?” Molly’s breath was quickening, the brandy inflammation roaring through her blood so that she did not know quite how to think.

 

“Ah, I wish you well, Molly.  I know you will make some unworthy lout very happy.  You aren’t one for the vapours and the fainting fits, are you?  You wouldn’t keep your husband from your bed…”

 

“Sir, I…this is not…I’m sorry to hear it but…”

 

At the sound of urgent footsteps entering the dining room, Sir Rupert tipped Molly from his knee and dashed back the remains of the brandy.  He strode through the connecting door, and Molly heard the concerned, lowered voice of Lady Julia.

 

“She is no better, Rupert…you must go to her…she is raving about your ruin and Florence’s dishonour…please call the physician…”

 

Molly shrugged, poured herself another glass of cognac and sank down pleasurably into the indentation her suddenly very interesting master had made in the leather.

 

 

3 Responses to "1888 Part 6"

I can imagine, the misguided, ambitious thing.

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