The Woodsman had let her have bunches of mistletoe and bright red holly berries in exchange for a kiss. A passionless one mind you, no more than a gentle peck upon his cheek. She had felt his arm brush against her breasts as he moved closer, but he did that to all the women, well the servants anyway. She had no real objection, in fact, pondered if she would have been insulted if he hadn’t done so.
She sat quietly in front of the freshly blackened range, the warmth filling the small room, the mantle clock ticking the seconds away. She regarded the clock, its shiny, lovingly polished mahogany case, the glass front and enamel dial unscratched, its engraved brass plaque, an enduring reminder, as if she needed one, of her late father’s long service and loyalty to the Estate.
The fire suddenly glowed a bright red as sap from the wood oozed into the flames, shooting sparks out over the heath rug. She stood up, stooped, deftly picking them up and throwing them back into the grate. She had done so, so often over the years, that her fingers had hard little patches of skin that had no feeling of the heat of the embers.
Now she was up out of her chair she straightened her pinny, decided to change it for a freshly laundered one, lightly starched pure white, for she was a woman of importance in the hierarchy of servants who tended the big house. She threw on her heavy woollen cloak, pinned her bonnet in place and left to walk up the long straight drive that lead to the Hall.
The night was clear, vague traces of high wispy cloud, the moon with a white ring around it, a ring that country folk always reckoned heralded snow. ‘A White Christmas,’ was it possible? It had been a while since one of those, but then again it had been four years since Christmas and the New Year had been properly celebrated in the Hall, let alone a white one.
Time perhaps to forget those past celebrations for they were unlikely ever to return, although she knew that forgetting them completely would never be possible. The happiness she had enjoyed as a child and young woman, working in the big house. But now on Christmas Eve 1917, she felt yet again the bitterness and anger rising, unbidden, at the events some three years past now, that she was certain would scar her memories for many years to come. Perhaps forever
The big house – Rainsford Hall – to give it its proper title, was what one would expect of a large English country house, although the bottom fields nudged just across the border into Wales, a permanent reminder of past squabbles often won by the stroke of a sword.
The Rainsford family traced their ancestry back to the Norman invasion and had a long history of menfolk who went to war and women folk who produced prodigious quantities of young. There was a long picture gallery hung with portraits of these fighting men and fertile women, including, as is always required of long-lived noble families, a couple of black sheep. The family counted the fact that they had such ancestors as a blessing, as it was those men who provided the basis of the fortune that still made the family one of the richest in the country. Besides, they added a touch of glamour, romance even, to dinner parties which otherwise could have been deadly dull affairs.
As she walked towards the house she heard the gentle footed deer moving away into the safety of the trees, but the sheep kept up their steady grazing, for people bred no fear within them.
Christmas Eve, the Hall showing few lights, whereas in years gone by, every window would have been ablaze. Elegant carriages and expensive cars dropping off happy party goers looking forward to a pleasant evening, before walking across the open courtyard into the Chapel to welcome Christmas Day. Many would have stayed over, joining the Boxing Day Shoot followed by a Grand Ball within the elegant and traditionally candle lit Ballroom.
“Mary? Is that you? There’s fresh tea in the pot if you fancy, before you turn the beds down and there’s plenty of cake left over which was made special for the children. Little buggers were too excited to eat proper, all athinking what Santa would be abringing them no doubt.”
“Thanks’ Cook, just tea will be fine for it’s precious cold out there tonight. I swear that drive is getting longer as each year passes and I get older.”
“Be gone with you Mary, you aint old, I’ll be givin’ you near twenty years no doubt. Look at you, bonny and nicely rounded, just where the menfolk like a woman to be. Old indeed!”
Mary, as Housekeeper, took great pride in her work, but now, with so few of the family at home and mainly the women, she had time to spare, too much at times, too much to dwell upon the past.
The ritual of turning the beds down she kept for herself, for then she could make doubly sure that each room was to the liking of the family member or guest occupying it. Was it clean and freshly dusted, was there coal enough for those that liked a fire to last the night?
She would start with the younger women’s rooms. The wives of the Rainsford brothers, four in all, women bound by the common cause of fear for their loved ones, all abroad with the Army. Women who, once upon a time would have seen the servants as just that, servants to do their bidding whatever the time of day or night. Just servants, not as women who bled as they did, cried out in pain at childbirth, just servants.
But now there was less of divide between servant and served. Many of the maids had gone to work in the munitions factories as had the children’s nannies. Thus the family women folk unused to any manual toil, even to changing their babies nappies, had suddenly found their comfortable world turned upside down. The Duchess, a very self-sufficient and practical woman, which some considered had been learnt in the lower rungs of the aristocracy where she was bred, had gently chivvied the younger women from their languid easy lives, into the reality of a world at war.
When she had first arrived at the Hall a blushing newly-wed, newly titled, unsure of her ability to run the big house, Mary had become her maid. The women both aged twenty, both fresh to the marriage bed and its intimacy, both not quite sure if they were doing things properly, satisfying their men. Not that they talked openly about such matters of course, but the relationship between the Lady and her maid became, not one of open friendship, at least not to begin with, but of two young women who liked each other, had a respect for the difference in the ranks imposed by society, but who would occasionally giggle outlandishly together.
The Duchess’s husband, a few years older than his bride and an astute judge of character, had after a few months advised his new wife, ‘to keep an eye on her maid’s husband, for there is something about him that causes me apprehension.’
The Duchess, having elicited no further information, but having promised to, ‘honour and obey’, did just that.
The birds had flown high and fast on Boxing Day and the few men too old to go to war had fared no better than the womenfolk in bringing them to earth. There had been much merriment at the continual misses and in some cases, happiness from the youngsters present, that the pheasants had the upper hand.
The youngest wife, a pretty young woman, still finding her way in the pecking order of the English aristocracy, had, it would long be remembered, missed every single bird that had flown above her, but had successfully bought down the old weather vane upon the barn where lunch was to be served. Many were the jokes about, ‘missing the barn door at thirty paces.’ Still, she had taken it in good stead, downed two large glasses of extra strong punch and declared that she would sit the afternoon out, much to the relief of the other guns and beaters.
Mary had watched from the barn, enjoying the comradeship on display, the children and dogs vying to see who could bring back any pheasant unlucky enough to have been hit. After lunch she had returned to the big house, inspected all the bathrooms for fresh towels, for there would be much demand for both them and copious amounts of hot water.
She entered the Duchesses suite of rooms to lay out her evening clothes, for her maid had fallen ill and Mary had said she would see that everything was in order until she was able to resume her duties. Besides, she enjoyed the quiet elegance of the room, the femininity, the lavishness which was missing from her own humble cottage.
The Duchess came in, a handsome woman, cheeks red from the fresh air, long skirts laden with mud. “Well Mary, never have I seen such fun on a shoot! Why, I swear even the birds were waving as they passed us by, secure that they were more than likely to be quite safe! Tis good to see the women forget their worries for a little while and know that at least until tomorrow, there is no likely hood of them receiving that dreaded telegram. Even worse I suppose is hearing the telegram boy in the distance on that awful little motorbike of his, each wondering if their name is in that little brown pouch.”
“Come and sit with me while I bathe, for it is a while since we talked and your eyes tell me that you are not quite right my dearest Mary.”
The two women had talked, now friends with the passing years, enjoying each other’s company, less distinction between their ranks these days. Mind you, the Duchess would reflect on these occasions, that rank actually meant very little when one was as naked as a new born babe and being wrapped in warm white towelling sheets.
“Still troubled Mary?”
“Yes Your Grace.” She got no further as the Duchess cut her off.
“Mary, we are alone, we are friends, at least call me ‘My lady’ as I know you will not use my given name, but My lady’ is a t least more familiar, less formal, less harsh, than ‘Your Grace.’
She continued not giving Mary the chance to intervene, “I can’t pretend to say I understand what you’re feeling, the distress and humiliation, the hurt of the vicious words thrown out at you by people one would have counted as friends. But Mary, my dearest Mary, it is three years since.”
“Yes my Lady three years since, but it is not only the distress and humiliation, but the fond memories destroyed by someone I though loved and honoured me.”
“Perhaps he did in his own way, but it was his character that was flawed Mary and in that you could have played no part.”
Mary quickened her pace, almost running the last few yards into her cottage. She sank into her chair and gave way to great waves of tears spotting down onto the still pristine white starched pinny.
She woke as the clock chimed three. The fire was low, but brightened quickly as she threw more logs on to it. She was cold and stiff but calmer than she had been for many months. What she would give for a deep hot bath! Maybe she would find the time later in one of the bathrooms up at the Hall. The Duchess had no issues with the maids so doing, given how uncosy where their bathrooms, something she intended to rectify in the near future
A fresh pot of tea would have to suffice and Mary sat cradling the cup, watching the flames, taking comfort from them, her anger gone at the man she had loved so dearly, the Duchesses words clear in her ears from the night before. “Mary my dear Mary, you must try to forget him, the taunts he opened you up to came from those in society who have a nasty piety about them, have no understanding that a wife cannot be blamed for the actions of her husband when he is so far away from her.”
Mary had opened her mouth but the Duchess held up a stern warning finger that silenced her. “No Mary you were not to blame.”
“Yes My lady but there are still some folk who will not talk to me, will cross over to the other side of the street rather than walk past me.”
“Then let them, for they will never understand, but you and I and the more generous folk in this household know the truth of the matter and that is what you must hold onto Mary! Now, to change the subject, rumour has it that the School Master has been calling upon you, sometimes with a bunch of flowers, so you should take heed that those of us who can think independently of the herd see no blemish attached to you.”
The day after Boxing Day there was much coming and going as the Christmas guests left, making way for those who were to come for the New Year. There was a great gathering up and changing of used bed linen, rooms being aired and dusted, freshly laundered sheets being ironed and hung in the laundry before once again being made up into warm welcoming beds.
Mary worked side by side with the others standing in for the servants who had gone to war in one form or another, glad that her mind was occupied but aware that throughout the festivities she had watched carefully the young mothers of the family and the guests with children, sheltering them from the real dangers their fathers faced. Menfolk who would rather have been shooting at those brightly coloured birds, rather than the drab, cold, mud covered men speaking foreign languages in the trenches on the other side of the barbed wire.
Thank god she had not been left with child she would muse, but then instantly regret that she had no child, for deep within she wanted to mother a son or daughter it did not matter, just not his, for she did not know if she could have loved it.
She was angry again even after three years. But with whom? Him? Or, herself for loving him, to start with anyway. But was it even love or had she merely been caught up in the headiness of a handsome young man paying court to her?
She wanted to remember him as he first was, before the bitterness had come, had poisoned him. But now she could not forgive him as she watched the other woman being proud of their men folk even in their widowhood.
Her husband, how she had gloried in that word in the early months of the marriage, was not an evil man, he did not beat her, he did not drink to excess, he appeared genial to all and sundry. But behind closed doors it became different, his tongue took on a violence towards her as war seemed to come closer with the inevitable draft of fit young men.
She would try to understand the reasons, soothe him as she felt a good wife should but she had little or no success. The angrier he became the more difficult his ranting were to follow. So her love for him began to wane to be replaced by sorrow that such a handsome young man could turn into so bitter a human being. And she had no reasons at that time as to ask why, other than to imagine it was somehow her fault.
They had come for him at dawn on Christmas Day 1914, offered him a last cigarette but he was in such a state of fright he could not keep it between trembling lips. The firing squad had smirked at him, already savouring the hot rum they would be given following the execution. Another day, another coward tied to a post, blindfolded and shot through the heart, a quick clean death.
They had no regrets, the firing squads, it was simple, a man who ran away, left his comrades to die on the end of a German bayonet, was a coward. A weak man who had enjoyed the cheering crowds as he marched to war, enjoyed the attention of generous women, despite a good and honest wife at home. A man, who when faced with bloody reality, had not stood his ground as did his comrades on either side, but had fled, crying and screeching. A man the others had already begun to regard with, ‘some apprehension.’