by White Hat
Second part of the story about a wealthy girl and her servant.
| That night, I lay awake for a long time in my bed, thinking about my old friend Jeremy. I wonder what has happened in his life up until this moment. Has he been working as a servant for a long time by now? Since I had only known him briefly when we were small kids, I had never guessed that he came from a poor family, as he must have, to be in this line of work. I think about his messy hair, and how tired he and Michael appeared when I met them that morning. Wherever he worked before, I only hope that he had been treated well there. But suddenly, I notice myself feeling cheerier than I had in a long time. I find that I look forward to seeing what the days ahead will bring. Because now that he is here, perhaps my life can liven up a bit, at long last. He and I had a lot of fun together as kids, which means that there must be a certain connection between us, right? Surely he remembers it too. So why wouldn’t we be able to pick up where we left off? I know that there is a lot of fun to be had in this big mansion too, certainly no less than down at that creek where we had played long before. I also know that Father would be very angry with me if he knew what I was thinking now but... Jeremy and I would keep all of our activities strictly secret, that was beyond a doubt. I yawn.
Eventually I fall asleep. I have a dream about a clear stream of rushing water, with wild horses roaming freely nearby.
The next morning I wake up, excited to start the day, and dress quickly into one of my favorite gowns, a pretty green one. I woke up earlier than the rest of my family this time, so I know that I will be having breakfast by myself.
I come downstairs into the kitchen. The old servant Melinda greets me at the doorstep.
“Good Morning, Miss Clara! You’re up early. You look very well today, positively glowing”
“Why thank you Melinda, I feel well too.”
I sit down at the large table.
“Today, your new boy will be serving you breakfast,” she informs me.
“But this time I will be watching him, to ensure he does everything properly.”
“Very well,” I say.
Before I can wonder which boy she means, I am pleased to see Jeremy approaching the table with a delicate silver tray in his hands, laden with hot biscuits and eggs. Only, his head and eyes are cast downward as he walks. He appears sad, or at least very tired.
“Careful, you have to watch where you’re going, Boy,” Melinda calls out to him.
“Yes, Madam,” he mutters weakly in response, and then he begins to glance nervously toward the table.
When he reaches it, he sets the tray carefully down in front of me, his trembling hands rattling it slightly.
“Enjoy your breakfast, Miss,” he says to me rather solemnly, looking not at me, but still at the table.
It’s strange to hear Jeremy call me Miss.
“Thank you,” I respond. “Have you and Michael slept well last night?”
At first he’s silent, as if he hadn’t heard my question. He looks at the floor now, hands folded tightly in front of him. He doesn’t look up at me to answer.
“Yes of course Miss,” he mumbles at last, and then he turns and walks out of the kitchen.
When he has gone, Melinda looks at me and shrugs.
“I apologize Miss Clara, I forgot to tell him he’s not allowed to leave until you’ve dismissed him, so we’ll just have to let him go this time,”
“Oh, that’s alright,” I say.
So then I dismiss her and begin eating my breakfast. As I eat, I think about how unhappy Jeremy had seemed. Might it be because he and Michael had some sort of disagreement between them? Or had he not been able to sleep well after all, for some reason? Or perhaps, he’s just shy in this new place, I consider. Whatever the case, I hope that I will be able to help lift his spirits soon. After all, I really do want him to enjoy living here with me.
Soon afterward I meet with my sisters in one of our dressing rooms for a private talk.
“Be sure to remember your duties Clara,” Tina lectures me for the hundredth time.
“As you know, Weston is coming to visit us in only a few days. Have all your dresses and jewelry chosen and ready, and the activities planned. And make sure that you are caught up in all the recent matters concerning his family, so that you can engage him in intelligent conversation regarding those matters. Oh, and of course always mind your manners as well. You never want him looking at you as a fool,”
“Oh, you can take it easy already with your nagging Tina,” Amelia cuts in impatiently, before I can answer.
“Clara certainly knows what she needs to do already,” she adds, turning to me and reaching out to touch me on the shoulder.
I smile and nod at her gratefully.
“Besides,” she continues slyly, “perhaps she shouldn’t be quite so polite to him this time around. He’s the man she’s going to marry for heaven’s sake Tina, not her tax collector. She needs to intrigue him, not put him to sleep. In fact, I think she should even test him a bit too, to see how he can handle matters not always going the way he expects them to,”
She winks at me.
“And I can give you some suggestions for this too if you’d like Clara,” she says.
Tina throws her hands up in frustration.
“You’ll do no such thing if you have any sense left in you! Mark my words Amelia, if you don’t learn restraint soon Father will disown you. You are the shame of our family,”
Amelia sighs and rolls her eyes.
“Oh, hush, Tina. Anyway isn’t it time now for you to go into town and fetch the keys for Mother like she asked you to?”
“You are right,” Tina responds curtly. “So I’m going now because I’m completely dedicated to my duties unlike…” she casts a suspicious eye over us. “Some,” she huffs. “I hope you two will decide to spend your time wisely too. ”
Then she picks up her skirts and hurries out of the dressing room.
When she has gone, Amelia chuckles and gives me a look.
“She’s quite funny, actually. Someday she’ll learn how life really is.”
“Tina is very resolute,” I say. “And she has a point, even if she nags too much,”
“So do I, Clara,” Amelia assures me. “Think about it. This is the man you are supposed to spend the rest of your life with. Surely you want to get a taste of what living with him is going to be like. And you can be certain he is wondering the same thing about you too. So, let him know he won’t be disappointed,”
“Oh, and speaking of not being disappointed...” she said suddenly, “what do you think of your two new servants? Are either of them pleasing to the eye?”
She smiles knowingly and winks again.
“Oh don’t act so surprised, Clara,” she says, laughing. “Both of those boys are clearly near your own age. And I saw the way you were at looking the thin one... I’m surprised actually. I thought the blond boy was surely the more handsome of them,”
“The thin boy’s name is Jeremy, Amelia. I once played with him near a creek many years ago, when we were children, so I knew his name even before he was presented to me. I only stared at him like that because I recognized him and was shocked to see him again, especially here in our home,”
Amelia gasps and smiles brightly.
“Wow, is that really so? That’s incredible! It must be fate then, him being here. Does Father know about it?”
“Yes, I told him right away actually,”
“And he doesn’t have any problem with it?” she asks incredulously.
“He said it was fine to keep him here as long as I promised to always behave properly,”
Amelia looks at me admiringly.
“I’m proud of you, Clara. You did the right thing, telling Father what he needs to hear. Now we can have lots of fun with this,”
“Perhaps,” I say, “as long as I stay within my limits of course. You know I can’t do anything that would upset Father,”
“Oh hush, you can do whatever you like as long as you make sure he never finds out. And trust me, that’s not hard to do either. I can help you cover your tracks. I’m very good at that.”
I ogle at her.
“I’m afraid to imagine what you mean, Amelia.”
“I know my way around, Clara. I haven’t let Father’s rules get in the way of having adventures, so I’m aware of the things that lie outside our mansion walls, much more than either you or Tina. I believe you need to start having more fun, too. Both of you are too cooped up in here all the time, and also, you are the oldest, so you are due to marry soon and leave us. You simply must get a taste of what life has to offer before you become a bride. Besides, as I’ve been telling you all this time, an overly naive wife is sure to bore Weston, just as it would any other decent man nowadays. That boredom may even lead him to divorce you for another, God forbid, so it’s for your own good no matter which way you look at it. The time has come for you to become a more modern woman,”
I am speechless, listening to her.
“I’m not sure I understand what you’re talking about, Amelia. What are you actually suggesting me to do?”
She pauses and puts a finger on her lip, appearing to consider for a moment.
“Listen, I have an idea already. I know of a small private party which is happening in two days. It is happening at night, at the Witches’ Brew. I propose that you sneak out there with me, and… even better, bring your new servants along for even more fun! That way, we could all have a chance to get to know one another better, practically as though we were equals.”
“That’s completely crazy, Amelia! What a dangerous plan! You know Father would be furious if he ever caught us doing that. And, the Witches’ Brew? Isn’t it that lowlife tavern run by the crazy hag, Agatha?”
“Yes, that’s the one. Only it’s not anywhere as bad as you’ve been lead to believe. I go there quite often myself, and it’s always a good time at that place. And you should really meet Agatha for yourself, she’s actually a wonderful woman,”
“I don’t know Amelia…” I say. “I’d like to trust you, but this really seems like an insane idea. It makes my stomach turn with worry just thinking about it,”
“You only say that because you haven’t gone out enough yet, dear Sister. But that’s okay Clara, at least promise me that you’ll take some time to consider this before you give me your final answer. Just think, you may live to regret it if you refuse to take this chance,”
“Alright then Amelia,” I say. “I promise you that I will take some time to think about it carefully.”
“Very good,” she says, patting my shoulder. Then she lightly brushes her fingers over the sleeve of my dress and eyes me critically.
“And now, you should really go and buy yourself a new dress in time for Weston’s visit. This old one looks as though it is starting to come apart at the seams already,”
I look down at my sleeves too and see that she’s right, so I go and get ready to travel into town and visit my favorite dress shop.
Outside, the weather is dry and hot, and the hooves of passing horses kick dust high into the air. Myself, I don’t ride on a horse this time, because the dress shop is near enough to the mansion for me to comfortably reach there on foot. I carefully cover my face, to ensure that none of the common townspeople can recognize me as Clara Washburn, daughter of the famous Arthur Washburn. I must cover myself whenever I go into town, because being recognized on the street could attract unwanted attention and trouble.
As I walk, I am alone with my thoughts again. My father had betrothed me to Weston Price from the time that both of us were small children. The Prices have been the wealthiest and most powerful family in a neighboring town for many years now, making them one of the few families around on par with our own. This means that their young son Weston, who is only a little older than myself, is the perfect marriage prospect for me in my father’s eyes. That is why he wasted no time in sealing the deal, so to speak.
It has been many years since Weston had last visited our mansion with his mother Wisteria. Back then, we were both both very young of course, but nevertheless I remember him being quiet and serious. He didn’t look very comfortable in our home. The visit was short, and was quite clearly merely a formality; he obviously hadn’t come because he was truly interested in making extended small talk with me and my family. However, that is to be expected, I remind myself.
Boys of that age are mainly only interested in spending time joking and playing outside roughly with their other male friends, not sitting around politely in stuffy suits while their mothers made formal conversation with the elders of other families.
Of course, we didn’t have any time alone with one another either. Whenever we were together, his mother and my parents were watching us like hawks, carefully monitoring all our words and actions.
But this time his visit should be different, I think to myself brightly. We are older now and we have the right, or nay, the necessity, to get to know one another on a more personal level before we finally marry.
Despite my obedience to my father, I cannot find it in myself to be at ease agreeing to marry a man who is a total stranger. Nowadays, love marriages are highly in fashion, and besides, even my own parents had the fortune to marry out of free will. But since I know how important this political alliance is to my family, I fully intend to go through with this marriage to Weston, under the small condition that I can become reasonably sure I could grow to love him, over time at least. That isn’t much to ask for, as far as I can see.
Finally I reach the dress shop. Naturally, it is a fine establishment which only upper class women can afford to visit, so it is safe for me to reveal myself there. Once I am inside, I quickly remove my face covering, and the shop owner, Lola, who knows me and my tastes in fashion quite well, recognizes me at once and smiles warmly.
“Clara! What a pleasure it is to see you back here again, after such a long time!”
I smile back at her.
“It’s a pleasure to see you too, Lola,” I respond.
I quickly explain to her my current circumstances as well as the kind of dress I’m looking for, and she has me try on a few until we both agree on a beautiful olive green silk gown with a sleek, embroidered gold design.
As I stand in front of the mirror wearing it, she tilts her head in admiration.
“The green contrasts very nicely with your reddish hair, dear Clara,” she says.
Pleased at my reflection, I nod in agreement.
So I pay Lola for the dress, thank her, cover my face again, and start back on my way home.
Because of the hot weather, I then become thirsty, so I decide to stop briefly at a small shop where I can sit for a while and sip a cup of tea.
The tea shop, unlike the dress shop, is a place where mixed company frequently gathers, so it is necessary for me to remain covered while I am there. Fortunately, my face covering is loose enough that I am able to easily drink or eat without having to remove it.
I’m happy to see that the shop is nearly empty when I visit it. The atmosphere there is pleasant, slow and quiet. There are only a few other customers sitting at the tables, some chatting quietly amongst themselves as they nibble cookies or sip tea.
A waitress quickly arrives at my table with a steaming hot cup of tea, and I blow on it and sip idly until two common women, a blonde and brunette, enter through the door and seat themselves at the table directly next to my own.
Ignoring my presence, they begin to talk loudly to one another.
“So, what do you presume will happen to old Arthur Washburn and his clan?” The blonde asks her friend excitedly.
The brunette shakes her head.
“I can’t say for sure,” she answers. “But anyhow I doubt those clowns can stay in power for much longer, given all the changes that are coming soon and the sheer amount of people who despise them,”
My stomach drops as I hear this.
“Yes, I think you’re right, Mary,” the blonde chimes in with enthusiasm.
“Gosh,” she continues. “I feel so blessed to be alive during this time of change. Just think, it’s a magical moment in history. Whatever will happen now, it will surely be for the better. The people in this town have simply been forced to suffer through this Washburn nonsense for far too long,”
The brunette chuckles and nods.
“You can say that again, Nora,”
Then a waitress arrives with at their table with pastries, and the women pause their conversation as they begin to devour them.
I have finished my tea now, so I hastily get up and leave the shop.
I feel unwell as I walk back home. My head buzzes and I’m unable to think clearly. I wonder what sorts of changes those women were talking about. Do the townspeople really hate us? Honestly, I don’t know much about the common folk and what they think. I wonder about what may happen to my father and the rest of my family.
Then I remember again that the horrible Mrs. Bouchard recently told us she heard gossip that our family may lose power. But I wasn’t sure whether to believe her, or whether she was simply hoping to make us sick with worry, out of her jealousy of our family’s prosperity.
Now I’m even more confused, and worried.
When I return home, Melinda hurries to greet me. She is twisting her hands and has an anxious expression.
“So glad you’ve returned at last, Miss Clara! I must speak with you about something,”
“Oh, really? What about, Melinda?”
“It’s about Jeremy, your new servant,” she says.
My ears perk up. I have been wondering how his first day at our home has gone.
“Yes? What about him? Is he alright?”
“Oh yes of course, he’s fine,” she assures me. “Only… he appears to be an awful servant, Miss,”
I am confused.
“What do you mean?” I ask her.
“I had your servants assist me on the farm today,” she explains, “and I have had to scream at Jeremy many times for taking an unreasonably long time to complete his orders, and for becoming distracted by useless things, as well as making careless mistakes which cost us much time and energy to correct. Of course, I slapped him several times, to set him straight, but even that didn’t help matters much. Besides, the boy isn't strong. He was only able to carry a small bit of wood in his arms, virtually nothing compared to the respectable load which Michael had been lugging around since morning, with barely a strain. Michael is a precious boy, by the way. He has been a big help to me. But that Jeremy... he is strange. He constantly stares off into space. And he is so pale and weak, especially for a man of his age, that it makes me question his health. From what I’ve seen today Miss, I can assure you that this boy is unfit for physical labor, let alone the disciplined life of a servant. So I’ve come to you to suggest that you speak to your father about this most unfortunate situation and humbly request him to rid us of this Jeremy and find you another healthier, more suitable man to work here in his place,”
I am stunned to hear this. My mind swarms with questions and thoughts.
“And, if he leaves our home…” I ask solemnly. “Where will he go then?”
She shakes her head.
“Hard to say, Miss,” she answers. “But that is not our concern. Truthfully, it’s difficult to imagine what such a boy can do these days to earn a living, particularly if his family is too poor to educate him. Anyhow it is up to him to think of a way to survive, or to shape up. If he fails to do this, he may simply starve and eventually die of course. Sad perhaps, but there are many cases like these and there always will be. Such is the way of our world, as you know,”
I feel pain in my chest as I visualize my sweet childhood friend Jeremy cast out alone into the street in the cold, dying slowly of starvation.
No, I think to myself in a panic, I must do everything in my power to spare him from this horrible fate.
“So, you say you are unsure of the state of Jeremy’s health, isn’t that right, Melinda?” I say suddenly.
“Yes that’s right, Miss,” she answers.
“Then... what if, perhaps, he is weak and sickly now because he had been mistreated at his former job?”
“Well, I suppose that is a possibility…” she begins to say hesitantly.
“Come to think of it,” I continue with greater conviction, cutting her off. “I am almost sure of it! Sadly, I could see it since he had arrived here. The poor thing, he has the air of a boy who had been abused, plain as day. If this is so, I hope you can see that it is unholy for us to even think of letting him go so quickly. You, of all people, must know that the Washburns are a generous, reputable family. So, we have a duty to show Jeremy patience and understanding, until he heals and regains his strength,”
I see doubt and confusion in Melinda’s eyes, but slowly she nods obediently.
“I see, I understand,” she says simply .”As you see fit, Miss Clara,”
“Good, so go easy on him now Melinda, no more screaming or hitting,” I tell her. “And hand over more of the hard work to Michael, since he seems better able to tolerate it,”
“Very well, Miss,” she responds.
And then I dismiss her to leave.