Chapter two! Thanks so much to everyone that reviewed on here and on FF. If you have questions I will try and get to them tonight! It’s been a great ‘wee’ start and I’m glad you’re enjoying it! xox
I walked slowly down the hall, trying my best to keep my breathing under control. I wanted to vomit, I wanted to faint, and I wanted nothing more than the ground to simply open up and swallow me whole. If I lost this job I really didn’t know where I’d go or what I’d do. A few minutes later, Dawn walked out of Eric’s room and immediately scowled in my direction.
“Is he going to have me sacked? Am I fired?” I panicked.
She rolled her eyes, “I should tell Mrs. Fortenberry about this, you know,” she said in her proper, somewhat clipped accent. If I had to guess I’d say she was once a native of London herself.
“Are you going to?”
She stood, arms crossed, and pondered.
“I should, but … I won’t. Eric is somewhat intimidating at first, so I can understand your nerves. But don’t do it again, lest we all get blamed! But you’re lighting the fires for the next month, not me, you understand?”
I nodded enthusiastically, I’d have done anything she asked in that moment if it meant staying out of trouble. And staying out of trouble is exactly what I did, I bothered no one, and I did everything I was asked – this time without spilling any drinks on any gentlemen. Of course, it helped that beyond the staff the entire estate was empty; it was rather eerie in a way, to have such opulent rooms and have no life to any of it. It seemed sad, if there was any way a house could actually be sad, that is.
I was, however, ‘late’ for lunch, and ‘late’ for dinner the first day, the staff looking on, smug and mocking as I arrived long after the food was gone and they made their way out of the main kitchen both times. The cooks looked downright giddy about it too. I was just starving and angry about it. I didn’t quite understand why they were doing this to me, yes, I was new, but I was working hard and bar my one misstep with Mr. Northman, I’d been perfect. I’d been in my room a few minutes, willing myself not to cry because the other workers didn’t like me, when there was a knock on my door. Cautiously, I opened it to find Amelia standing there with a tray.
“May I come in?”
I nodded opening the door wider for her to come in and she laid the tray down on the bed for me.
“They do this to all the new staff, it’s their version of a welcoming I suppose. I think it’s cruel myself, you’ve worked hard all day, you have, and you need nourishment. So here’s some dinner I put by for you, and some milk. Just don’t let on, okay?”
I wiped the silent tears that had fallen without my permission,
“Thank you…” And I meant it!
She shook her head and sat down as I sat down too and began to eat unashamedly fast.
“So you’re from America then?” she asked, looking interested. I nodded with a mouthful of food.
“Yes, from Louisiana.”
“Why did you come to England then? Mrs. Fortenberry said they found you from that agency in London?”
“I needed a change of scenery, isn’t that what they say? I just needed something a little different, though this, here, is a lot more different than I was expecting, I must admit.”
“Do you like it?”
“I do most of the time, the climate leaves a lot to be desired however,” I grinned thinking of the hot summers back home by the lake, and how we’d get new bathing suits every year because we had to remain ‘respectful’ lest my Grandmother have a stroke.
She nodded, “I’m from Yorkshire meself, never went anywhere further than Cardiff with my family, all in service all our lives. Do you come from a family of servers?”
What did I say here? Did I make up a completely new life to go with my new name? I hadn’t made close friends in London, not ones that cared to ask for my history anyway, so my lie was always protected. Here is where it got messy. I didn’t want to deny my family, I loved them, I was proud of them, and it was just my marriage I needed to erase.
“No, my family were merchants by trade, and a baker, we used to own a little bakery in the town where I lived. But, they died when I was young and then things… well they change, don’t they? But, I still love to bake; I suppose I got that from my mother.”
Her eyes lit up. “I’d love if you’d bake us all something sometime, it might be a way of endearing yourself to the others too, just something to think about. Enjoy your dinner, I’ll talk to you in the morning. Dawn says you’re taking over fire duties? Do you know what to do?” She talked fast did Amelia, and with her slight Yorkshire twang I found myself listening hard for her too.
“I have lit a fire before, don’t worry I’ll do it as silent as the grave too.”
She smiled, “Mr. Northman’s is first, then the one in his living room and study. He usually wakes up at six, so if you’re done by five thirty…”
“Thank you,” I said, meaning it.
“You’re welcome. And you are, you know.”
“I am what?”
“Welcome.” She smiled again, big and wide before she walked out closing my door silently behind her. I smiled as I ate my heaping plate of food, thankful for her and her generosity, and kindness. I had hope that I was as welcome as she implied, only time would tell.
I was up the next morning before the dawn, as I dragged myself out of bed to wash by my sink with the cold water waking me up harsher than I would have liked. I brushed and pinned my long hair neatly under my white cap, smoothed down my apron, slipped on my shoes, and began my long day. That morning I made it for breakfast. Even if they all looked upon me with disdain, I wouldn’t care, I was there to do my job, not please the unappeasable. The morning air ran through me as I fetched the buckets of coal to begin my fire lighting duties, I noticed a cautious looking cat huddled by the coal sheds, one of the mysterious Miss Sophie’s animals, I assumed.
“Now Susi, don’t forget you be as quiet as a mouse up there and be sure not to disturb Mr. Northman, you hear?”
“Yes, Ma’am. No need to worry, I’ll be quick too,” I nodded, ignoring that she still hadn’t got my name right as I braced my back to carry the bucket with the chopped sticks on top of it to head to the East wing. I thought I’d never get there. I really had to gain strength from somewhere if I were to do this every day, I thought when I finally reached Mr. Northman’s bedroom. I opened the door silently and walked in. The room was still dark, the shutters still firmly shut, and I noted a large form under the covers of the bed. I simply ignored it all and went about my duties, clearing out the ashes from the night before, and setting the fire before setting it ablaze and sweeping around. I heard feet hit the floor behind me, but ignored it and continued to finish up as he walked to his adjoining room that I now knew to be his private bathroom. I picked up my things and made a swift exit, closing the bedroom door just as I heard the other door open.
I sighed a breath of relief as I actually managed something right, a much better start to the day than the day before. I thanked the Lord.
Silver was done, carpets in the dining room and drawing room were finished between Amelia and me, and by lunch we’d both worked up quite an appetite after taking the rugs out back for a beating.
“So what’s your story then, Yank?” Trey asked, taking a large bite of his pork chop. The others around the table were all eyeing me carefully, almost as if they were so distrusting of me that they expected me to pinch the silverware.
“What would you like to know?” I asked politely, digging into my meal.
“Where you from, how you ended up here… for example,” Dawn added, looking bored.
“Well I’m from a part of Louisiana called New Orleans, it’s in the South. I was raised Baptist, I…” was preparing to lie, “married once, and now he’s gone…”
Mrs. Fortenberry’s face softened a little at that nugget of information, she continued eating. “I needed a change after things in my marriage went the way they did.” I admitted a half truth. “London seemed like a good place for a …what do they call it… a fresh start?” I nodded to the table, “and so I came, looking for a job to support myself – I’m a decent enough baker, If I do say so myself, but it was hard to find a good fit. That’s when I stumbled into this profession. I suppose it’s not really a life anyone chooses with other choices out there,” I shrugged, “but, so far it has not been unkind to me. I have a roof over my head, and I can take pride that I work hard for a living. What else is there?”
I focused on no one in particular, unsure I wanted to see their reaction to my story. But I noticed that even Mr. Dearborn nodded.
“Aye girl, no one ever went to their grave with regret that they worked hard for what they had, that be true.”
“Aye?” I asked.
“Aye,” he nodded.
“Aye…?” he said again, and we looked at each other, both confused.
“Aye I do, I think that. What I just said. Are ye’ deaf?”
“I?” I was confused, that’s all I knew.
The rest of the table laughed, and Remy finally spoke up.
“Aye, it means ‘yes,’ Yank.”
“Oh! I’m sorry…” I blushed as most the table went about their business or carried on conversation again, leaving me embarrassed.
“Don’t take it too hard, Americans don’t speak our English anyhow, it might take some getting used to,” Remy leaned in to whisper with a teasing smile on his face.
“Is that so?”
“Aye,” he said, pointedly.
“Aye it is then,” I said, and it even sounded strange coming from my mouth.
“Enough fannying about Susi, you’re to deliver Mr. Northman his lunch, the others and I are to prepare the West wing for Lord Niall’s return. Hurry up now!” I heard Mrs. Fortenberry tut from across the kitchen. I left the rest of my meal, drank my milk quickly and sprinted to fetch the tray.
“He doesn’t say much does he, Mr. Northman?” I asked her as she inspected the tray.
“No Susi, he likes to keep himself to himself, ever since…” she stopped herself and closed her eyes, then looked at me. “Well, he just likes the peace, and that’s what we like to give him, understood?”
I wasn’t an idiot, I knew there was something I wasn’t being told, but I let it go. It wasn’t my business after all.
“He’ll be in the library at this time of day, go there, quietly.”
I nodded, and made my way again on the seemingly long journey to the other end of this palatial house.
I knocked on the door, carefully balancing the tray on my knee as I did so. I received no answer, so I entered anyway, safe in the knowledge that he wouldn’t be standing there in just a towel this time.
I was right. I found him standing by the window, seemingly lost in a gaze at whatever or whoever he was watching, I also noticed a large dog sleeping by the corner of the room. I was afraid of dogs so I silently prayed it wouldn’t want to sniff me out.
I left the tray on the table, arranged the contents on the desk and lifted the tray. I stood for a second, awaiting any further orders, but when he didn’t turn, I wondered if I should just have left? Just as I was turning to leave, he spoke, causing me to jump a little in fright.
“You’re new. I don’t know you.”
His voice was deep but smooth, and something told me there was power behind it when raised. I turned to him, straightening out my apron to ease my nerves.
“What’s your name? Dawn was huffing a name out before, when you spilled-”
“I am sorry about that, Sir, I do not know what-” my eyes widened as I realized I interrupted him. Well done, Sookie.
“I’m sorry, Sir…” I said, again, and there was that amused look on his face, again.
“Name?” he asked, taking a seat and poking at his food with his fork, then looking up at me again.
“Sookie Stackhouse, Mr. Northman.”
He nodded, “Sookie, that’s what it was. Such an…unusual name.” I saw a half smile but it disappeared as soon as it appeared. “An unusual name for an unusual girl, it seems,” he said, quietly looking me over. I stood and said nothing, as I should have done in the first place.
“With an accent like that, you’re not from anywhere around here, I assume.”
“No, Sir.” I said, thinking that his own accent was not one native of here either.
He nodded, “I’d like to hear your story sometime, Miss… Mrs.?”
“Miss,” I clarified.
I nodded, unsure if I was meant to answer that or not. My nerves shot through me, and a small sweat broke on the back of my neck.
He poked at his plate some more, and tossed the fork. He sighed, before he lifted an empty glass from his desk and filled it with, what looked like whiskey, he downed a measure.
“Drink?” he offered, holding the bottle out to me.
I politely declined.
“If there is anything else, Sir?”
He closed his eyes, “I have told Mrs. Fortenberry, time and time again. Please call me Eric. And yet,” he sighed, “no one ever does.”
I was just meant to drop the tray off and leave, I was going to get in trouble. But, he was the one talking; I was just being polite and listening. I figured he didn’t have a whole lot of company, or any at all when I thought about it. He had to have been lonely.
He looked at me then, directly this time and his gaze was an intense one.
“Why is that, Sookie? May I call you Sookie?”
I nodded, “Yes, Sir, you may. I fear though, addressing you so informally… well it just wouldn’t be proper, Sir.”
He rolled his eyes. “And above all else we must adhere to propriety…” he sighed.
“Is there any-”
“No, that’s all, Sookie. Thank you.”
I nodded again, swiftly making my exit.
Another sigh of relief as I quickly made my way down the endless steps of the endless stairs, through the confusing corridors and back to the kitchen. I had curtains to clean.
The next few days went much the same, and I was glad for it. I enjoyed routine; it gave me comfort, a sense of security almost. I learned that Mr. Northman was not talkative in the mornings, as I would silently as I could go about my business and he his, both of us ignoring each other. I wouldn’t see him face to face outside a glance or two as he walked to his bathroom. I wouldn’t see him at all, for almost a week. And the next time I saw him, it wasn’t in the most appropriate of settings.
“Darn cat…” I mumbled to myself, huddling my coat close to my body as I looked around the large land for this cat that I just had to find. Apparently, according to Mrs Fortenberry, Nelly, the cat, had been missing for two days and it was my job to find it. I knew she was testing me, that, and the others just didn’t want to do it. I understood, it was meant to be warming up – weather wise – and yet if anything it felt as if it was getting colder. I was in hell, and now I had to traipse around in the cold wet, looking for a stupid cat.
“Nelly?! Puss, Puss… here Puss?” I called, looking through bushes, up trees, and inside the stables. Still no sign of Nelly, the little minx.
I’d been gone for what seemed like hours, and the sun – what we managed to see through the clouds here, was already starting to fade fast. I couldn’t go back without the cat or there would be ‘hell to pay,’ I was sure.
“Nelly? Cat? If you’re out here can you just show yourself so I can go back into the … less cold?” I would say the warmth, but in truth it was as icy as outside sometimes with the attitudes of some of the staff.
“Nelly, please? I know it can’t be fun being out here with wet fur okay? We have nice hot milk for you?” I called out, louder and louder, to no avail. I decided to climb one of the trees to the East of the house, maybe a higher perspective would help me see it, I wondered.
“Ooft,” I said as I struggled to climb the tree in my uniform and my heavy winter coat, but I could not go back without the cat, I kept thinking. First the girl dies, and now her animals were dying? That would not go down well, I assumed.
I was up the tree a few minutes when I gave up; I was cold and wet, and starving. If Nelly didn’t want to come home, personally that was her business. Let her be free, as we all longed to be, I thought.
I turned around, attempting to get down, one leg, then another…and then I heard it.
A quiet giggle.
I froze mid way down the tree.
I looked to my left and was shocked to see Mr Northman casually leaning against one of the other trees. So shocked was I to see him watching me, I missed my footing and landed with a hard smack on the ground.
“Ouch!” I said as I landed, I thought I’d broken my butt.
“Miss Stackhouse!” I heard, before I heard rushed footsteps in my direction. “Oh my… are you all right? I didn’t mean to frighten you!” he said, grabbing my arm and helping me up by the arm of my coat, gently. His touch far more tender than his build and frame would let one assume.
“Are you injured?”
“No unless an aching ego counts?” I asked, dusting myself off, not that it mattered, I was covered in wet mud all down my back.
“I’m sorry if I startled you, it was not my intention.”
“What was then?”
“Your intention, were you just enjoying watching me make a fool out of myself?” I said, momentarily forgetting my place. I panicked, instantly backing out of his grasp.
“I’m sorry, Sir, I didn’t mean anything by-”
“No, please, I enjoy your candour, it is so… rare these days,” he said, with a somewhat regretful look in his eyes.
“Still, it was not my place to-”
“I won’t tell anyone, I promise,” he smiled, he actually smiled, and it hit me like a breath of the freshest air. I had began to wonder if he had teeth, that maybe that was why he never ate any of his meals and seemed to survive on desserts and alcohol alone.
“Thank you, Sir.”
“Eric,” he said, urging me to use his first name. I simply shook my head.
“It just wouldn’t be fittin’,” I said with a friendly smile.
“Rules… all these silly rules,” he mumbled.
“Have you seen the cat? If I go back there without it, I fear Mrs. Fortenberry and her wrath.”
He rolled his eyes. “That thing has been nothing but trouble. She’ll be in the barn if anywhere, not out here in the wet, spoiled old thing she is.”
“I already checked there, no sign of her anywhere.”
He shook his head and began to walk, we were a good half mile from the house and his long legs made it difficult to keep in time with him, I had to run to catch up from time to time until we got to the barns. He smoothly climbed the ladder that I’d been up a time before, his frame making short work of the long ladders to the top.
“Come on up to see,” he shouted, and I looked around to ensure no one else saw us and I did just that. Sure enough, there he found her, hidden in a nook of the barn roof, hidden by a makeshift hay nest.
“Nelly, laziest cat in the world, so lazy she forgets to come home to eat,” he said, petting the fuzzy animal in his arms. I breathed a sigh of relief.
“Thank you, Sir. Really, Mrs. Fortenberry was quite insistent that she be brought back home.”
“Maxine is quite insistent on most things, is she not?” he said lightly as I began my descent down the first of three ladders, him closely following.
When we got down I held my hands out for the cat, thankfully she let me hold her without fuss, cuddling into my coat easily.
“Thank you, again.”
“You’re welcome, anytime,” he nodded.
“Is there something I could do, to thank you?” I offered, and I was stunned at myself. Why had I even suggested that?
He looked thoughtful for a moment before he spoke. “Call me Eric?”
I smiled and shook my head, “It wouldn’t be proper, not given my status, Mr Northman.” A beat passed us, “You have a sweet tooth.” I stated as fact, because I knew it to be true, “What’s your favourite cake?”
“You bake?” His eyes lit up as they fixed on me for a moment as we walked side by side.
“I do, it’s one of the few things I do well. Unlike… finding lost animals, or climbing trees.” I laughed, looking at the ground rather than facing him. It was odd, having an actual conversation with him. Outside the house seemed to be allowed, I told myself.
“Or not spilling milk…” he looked at me out of the side of his eye, a slight smile on his face. I noticed then just how pale he was, as pale as I imagined the character in a Bram Stoker novel I once read being – deathly pale, vampire pale.
“I am sorry about that…”
He just smiled. “Bake me a chocolate cake and we’ll forget about the spill then, how’s that?”
I wondered if we had supplies for such a cake, I’d have to root around. I knew items were not as widely available as they once were, rationed for the war just like everything else.
By the time we got to the back door, I had agreed to bake him his cake as soon as I could, and thanked him again.
“Shall I go in this door with you, or would that too not be…fitting?”
I shook my head, “You’re the master of the house, Sir. You do as you please, remember?”
“Yes, but would they be frizzled?”
“Most likely…” I said, shedding my coat, still holding Nelly close.
“Then I think I shall, for entertainment if nothing else,” he said with an unfamiliar glint in his eyes, one I realized I quite liked to see, and wondered if I’d see it again.
Only time would tell, wouldn’t it?