by jennifer broughton
visuals by rhoda
it was very quiet in the upstairs hallway. keeping her hands in the pockets of her apron, catherine scanned the little tables lining the hallway for anything that looked small enough and worth stealing.
"lost your way, miss?"
catherine looked up to see the housekeeper, mrs jones, staring down at her.
she had seen mrs jones once before, when she had been hired, and mrs jones had merely nodded when mrs jackson introduced her as a new cook's assistant. now she heard her voice for the first time.
"i know the sly searching look of a thief, miss. trust me, nothing in my household is left out for the likes of you."
"my hands were in my pockets, as you can plainly see," catherine responded.
mrs jones laughed. "ah, if i only had a penny for every time i have heard that one
from little wretches like you who were born to be hanged."
"i have no need of your driveling insults," catherine answered. "i was sent up here to find madame's maid, aurelie or amelie or some such. i will now leave the finding of her to you, madam, and as i have already been dismissed from service, i bid you good day."
mrs jones laughed again. "is that the rain i hear on the window, and the wind? i bid you good day too, miss, out on the highway." her eyes narrowed. "this way, please. i will escort you to the back door. you can wait outside it until your belongings - which i assume are negligible - are collected and brought out to you."
"fair enough. i only regret that i couldn't have associated with a better class of person - especially among the senior help - in my brief stay here at malvern."
"and i regret not having a stout switch at hand at this moment, to answer you as you deserve."
"as you have no wit but a switch to answer with, i am sure your regret is bitter indeed."
the housekeeper pointed to the stairs, "after you, miss."
"what's all this? i thought i heard my name. and what are nattering on about now, mrs jones, with your stout switches and such?"
catherine looked up to see a tall raven haired young woman who had emerged from the depths of the hallway. this must be aurelie or amelie, she thought. she wondered how the mistress, who had professed to abhor beauty in the female help, could tolerate such a creature as her own maid.
"are you amelie?" catherine asked her.
"hello, what have we here? who's this little pirate?" the dark haired young woman turned her flashing eyes on catherine.
"if you are amelie, the mistress is in the kitchen having a weeping spell."
"aurelie, the name is aurelie. you can go about your business, mrs jones, i will take over here."
so, thought catherine, the lady's maid is higher and mightier than the housekeeper here. a most useful piece of information - or would have been, if she were staying.
mrs jones melted into the gloom of the long hallway with her nose in the air. aurelie moved closer to catherine. "i think i heard there was a new kitchen maid. no one told me she was such a pretty one."
"the mistress is waiting downstairs," catherine reminded her.
"did she look as if she were dressed to go somewhere?"
"not that i noticed."
"then what is her hurry? but, come, lead the way." aurelie gestured for catherine to precede her. "tell me, how are those old dromedaries in the kitchen treating you?"
"well, however they treated me is now ancient history, as i have already been dismissed - "
" - by the mistress herself."
"ah." they were passing a large window. "and you have somewhere to go?"
catherine pointed to the window, against which the wind and rain were beating. "you can hear where i am going. " she sighed. "the housekeeper was going to take me to the back door and have my belongings brought out to me. i suppose i should now make my way there myself."
"no, no,no. listen." aurelie took catherine's arm. "go up to my room. it is the last room on the left, on the top floor of the east wing. do you think you can find it."
"i can find it."
"good. don't be afraid to ask directions, and mention me if anyone tries to give you any obstruction. they will back down quickly enough. the door will be open. make yourself comfortable."
catherine listened to the wind in the trees outside. "all right.'
"make yourself a fire if you like. i have no notion of how long milady will require me."
"thank you." catherine turned to go.
"oh, and one more thing, my pet."
"don't steal anything. either on your way, or from your new friend." with a last flashing smile, aurelie left catherine alone again.
catherine found the back staircase, which she judged safer than the main one, and made her way to the top floor. she was definitely in servants quarters, albeit nicer ones than she had ever been in before. the whole house, front and back, was strangely quiet. she wished at least one person would appear, so that she could ask if she was in the east wing.
she was in a long corridor. there was a door on the left at the end of it. but was it the east wing? or the west or the north or the northeast wing?
a door opened halfway down the dimly lit corridor. an older man with bad posture stepped out and glanced around furtively. at least he looked furtive to catherine, but when he turned and noticed her, he seemed neither surprised nor abashed. his suit was shiny and threadbare. the butler? maybe malvern was not so splendid and elegant as catherine had imagined, and she would be well rid of it.
"excuse me," catherine asked him. "is this the east wing?"
"it might be," the man answered evenly, looking past catherine down the corridor. "who would you be looking for?"
"i am looking for the room of miss amelie - aurelie, the mistress's maid."
"ah, yes, yes." the man looked catherine in the eye. "well, miss, those whose way is lit by the fires of hell will see by no other light."
"no, excuse me." the man walked around catherine and she watched him proceed to the stairs, which he descended without echo.
catherine turned and, though she had not heard a door open, found herself facing a tiny turbaned personage .
the figure came closer and catherine saw that he was a hunchback, and from the subcontinent of asia. but his age - was he child, youth, or dwarf? - she could not guess.
"you mustn't mind jack, " the imp announced. "he's really quite a saucy lad, though given to preaching when the situation seems to call for it." he fixed catherine with a twinkling eye.
catherine assumed jack was the man in the shiny suit. "that is all very well, but could you please tell me if this is the east wing?"
"i suppose i could tell you, if the fancy took me. could you tell me what you are looking for?"
"i am looking for miss aurelie's - the mistress's maid's room."
"ah - a plaything of aurelie's."
"i am nobody's plaything!"
"we are all the playthings of fate, miss," the imp replied with a smile. "you are in the west wing. the east wing is behind you. i am gunga pan, by the way. i bid you good day." and he went down the corridor and down the stairs even more quietly than jack, leavening catherine alone again. she could hear the rain on the roof above her.