By Jane Downing
Tilly heard the shouting but not the words. She pulled herself out of the fireplace and listened. Good. The castigation was not for her; one of the footmen was getting a telling-off from the butler. They were all on edge and had been since rumours about the guest list for the dinner had begun circulating through the house. Tilly crawled back over the grate with her pan and brush, to better be alone with her memorisations.
Come, lay thy head upon my breast,
And I will kiss thee into rest
The rest of the house may be aflutter about minor royalty, but Lord Byron himself – a man who could think such thoughts and put them down on paper – was also coming to dine that night. He might stand in front of the fire in this very room, warming his hands, turning his buttock cheeks to the flame. Tilly blushed at herself. She knew she would be in the kitchens, that she might as well be in the haram of a Pasha for all the chance she had of touching the poet god. She backed out with her dustpan full and stood and jumped at a voice close behind her.
‘Tilly, make yourself useful.’ Mrs White was as irascible as the butler and scarier. ‘If you spill one ounce of ash, girl, I’ll whip you myself, I will.’
Edith winked at Tilly from out in the great hall where she hovered behind the ogre of all housekeepers. Tilly watched her turn and dance in a haze of golden light reflecting off the oak-lined walls. Edith’s hair was pulled so tightly back she might as well be a wooden peg with eyes painted on. In that head she’d be thinking exactly what Tilly was thinking. Hadn’t they burnt the candle down to a nub the night before, to again read ‘The Bride of Abydos,’ rolling each unknown word in their mouths until they had the weight and flavour right. Their Sunday School letters gave them entrance to a world beyond an attic room in a London town house. To places like Turkey and harams, peopled with Moors and Sultans and Pashas, Viziers, sable guides and slaves and multitudes of handmaids. With men in gem-adorned chiboque and women spraying Persian Atar-gul’s perfume as they waited for men to come. Where violent passions permeated every waking moment.
‘Can you imagine?’ they’d said in unison at every verse break.
And when the light was gone and the thin pages of verse were neatly tucked under Edith’s pillow, they’d whispered secret ideas.
‘Do you think he is as tall as Lord M?’
‘Do you think he’ll seduce Lady M?’
‘Will he seduce her with some new verse he’s written, do you think?’ Tilly had sighed her last sigh because then Mona had interrupted from her bed in her hoity-toity voice and told them to go to sleep.
‘What does seduce really mean?’ Tilly whispered so low only Edith would hear. But she’d misjudged the cover of darkness.
‘Don’t you be telling her nothing,’ Mona had growled. ‘You didn’t know nothing at thirteen and she don’t need knowing now.’
‘Edith?’ Tilly tried. But Edith pretended not to hear. She obeyed the older girl and soon both she and mousey Sally and Mona were snoring in their beds.
Tilly had not slept so easily. She’d let herself drift on lines of remembered verse. She and Edith mistook the dinner guest for Childe Harold himself. Not at all a child though. Childe was another of their library of new words to raise them up. A candidate for knighthood. A knight to save them from the day… And Mrs White.
In the light of day, Mrs White growled and Edith stopped dancing and stood meekly with her head bowed. She had heard Tilly’s question the night before though. And over breakfast she’d whispered in Tilly’s ear and Tilly’s legs had been like one of Cook’s jellies since.
The girls knew there was a world where women were beautiful and there was never a mention of polishing and dusting and your fingertips looking like the shrivelled skin of a dead and plucked goose.
Down and down the girls went, because next they were ordered to the scullery to be reminded ‘potatoes don’t peel themselves more’s the pity.’
Cook, unlike Mrs White, was not unkind. Tilly knew she’d make the potatoes scrub and peel themselves if she possibly could. Cook had enough for all the girls to do, with forty world-weary stomachs to titillate besides.
Tilly plunged her hands in and out of the water to retrieve the blighted things. Edith, on her right in the line of working girls, scraped a knife over the rough carapaces, and tossed clean and skinned potatoes whole into a tin basin.
‘If there were this many women in the haram,’ Tilly mused over the dish, using her new knowledge from breakfast-time and adding another to the pile of naked potatoes, ‘and but one Pasha…’
‘How much passion did the Pasha have to spread around?’ giggled Edith.
‘No wonder Zuleika fell in love with her brother,’ Tilly sighed.
‘Her cousin,’ Edith corrected quickly. ‘As we allknow,’ she added in case there were eavesdroppers, which of course there were.
‘Get your heads out of the clouds,’ hissed Mona, as if she was training to be a proxy for Mrs White. Tilly hadn’t even heard her come through from the kitchen.
‘Ain’t it nicer up there in the clouds than down here in the scullery?’ Tilly turned to ask, because she hadn’t learnt any better. She hadn’t meant to brandish the knife as she turned, it was simply in her hand. Mona’s busy-flushed face drained of colour. Tilly hurried to reach for the next potato as Mona stepped forward and loomed over her. She was as fair as Tilly but hardly a girl anymore. Sixteen, with breasts pushing against the fabric of her shift. The only bright thing about her was her eyes. The blue of ice chips.
‘Poetry won’t do you no good,’ she told Tilly brutally.
Edith reached out and stroked the older girl’s arm. ‘Remember when it did?’
Alone and dewy – coldly pure and pale;
As weeping Beauty’s cheek at Sorrow’s tale!
The answering light was drowned by Cook’s shouted instructions.
Tilly took the tray of food to the library as she was told. The quiet vibrated against her eardrums after the bustle and bossiness of downstairs.
As some compensation for the hard work in the town house, here in Russell Square they had daily access to this room. Mrs White would send the girls there to set it to rights and to shine. And in a trice, slim volumes of poetry could be stolen. And of course they were later returned using the same excellent place for smuggling: under Edith’s skirts.
There were so many books they were like the oak in the grand hall: they lined the walls from floor to ceiling. There was a ladder to reach the highest, a ladder Edith was scared to climb but Tilly would spring up, eager to be of use to her friend. She’d trail her cloth along the highest shelves. She loved her throbbing heart when she looked down from such a height with nothing to stop her falling.
Up there were books that defied her Sunday School learning, where no amount of sounding out would discover a meaning. Homer, Plato, Ovid, Heraclites. She had to make up stories to go within the covers as she dusted and polished.
That morning she’d felt so happy she’d almost forgotten to use the ladder to get down.
Now her feet automatically slowed as she stepped across the carpets towards the elegantly posed coterie of male guests who would be staying in the fleshly aired rooms on the second floor. The men did not notice her arrival; she was sure even Lord M saw only the tray in front of her. He proclaimed to his friends that their guts would finally be satisfied.
She placed Cook’s tray of sandwiches and dry biscuits on the table already burdened with the bust of a turbaned blackamoor. She was within the circle of warmth from the fire, and also in a fog of sharp sweetness she recognised as spirits. Weak sun reached vainly through the high window, exhausting itself feebly on the carpet at her feet.
Without being overtly slow, pretending concentrated care and attention to her duties, Tilly fussed around the plates, all the while watching the men. There was one with a mop of hair and eyes so bright and cheerful he couldn’t be the author of soul-wrenching Satanic verse. Another had his back to her as he perused a shelf of histories, running a long sensuous finger down each spine in turn. She felt it on her body.
I would not wrong the slenderest hair
That clusters round thy forehead fair,
For all the treasures buried far
Within the caves of Istakar
She shivered and realised she’d linger too long. She hurried back the way she’d come.
‘Girl!’ Tilly was brought up short as she was about to slip through the door. ‘Tell me your name,’ Lord M commanded.
Now I’m in for it, she feared. The Lord had not lowered himself to address her before. He’ll have me hauled over the coals for sure, she thought.
He was close behind her, her master. ‘Tilly My Lord,’ he repeated loudly her soft whisper. ‘Interesting family name.’
She heard the men at the fire laugh around mouthfuls of bread and potted ham.
‘My Lord fancies himself a wit,’ said the one with his leg raised and laid across his opposite knee. The shoe thus exposed, sat oddly.
Another command struck Tilly from her other side. ‘Girl, get on, no time to dillydally.’
Tilly pivoted between the voice of Lord M in the library and Mona in the hall. Mona who today was there behind her at every turn like a pantomime villain, like a personal curse.
It was the Lord’s hand on her arm when she looked down.
‘On your way,’ Mona repeated, closer now.
Tilly was irritated and relieved in equal measure as she slipped past the older girl. Mona was standing in front of the lord in an attitude of defiance. Tilly glanced at Lord M. Was that naked anger in his eyes? Her eyes fell to the space between the maid and her master. A presence had moved between them, a shadow more solid than a ghost. A menace.
Mona asked, with little deference in her voice. ‘Sir, is there anything else you’d be wanting?’
His hands rose. Tilly ran to the backstairs before she could see what came next.
The bossiness and busyness of the day only increased. Their duties had no romance to them. Tilly and Edith had to create it, chanting back and forth to each other as they did a last sweep of the carpets in the grand dining room.
She snatched the urn wherein was mixed
The Persian Atar-gul’s perfume,
And as they collected up the already tumbling petals of Monsieur R’s flower arrangements.
And sprinkled all its odours o’er
The pictured roof and marble floor
They took turns trying to sneak upstairs once the evening guests were arriving. For just a glimpse, for the hint of the possibility of an image to carry in their hearts.
‘The silliness of you girls is beyond comprehension,’ Lady M’s dresser said as she tripped over them and headed them down the backstairs. ‘He is a serious gentleman. In the House of Lords he spoke for the working man. Those machines that make your stockings have done the weavers wrong, and they don’t deserve to hang for going against that which takes their livelihoods.’
Tilly thought the woman obsessed with items of apparel. The time she spent on Lady M’s undergarments was seen to be believed.
‘And which diamonds will the Lady be wearing tonight?’ Edith asked playfully.
‘She’ll be like the night sky over Turkey if you must know,’ the dresser snapped.
Tilly burned inside. Over Turkey? Were they all obsessed with the poet? She imagined the older servants walking over to the Circulating Library in Leadenhall Street, for none of them could be as cheeky as the girls pilfering from the master’s library.
Cook finally allowed the whole gaggle of them to watch from the first landing. Tilly looked around for her friends. Edith sat in close. Mona was not there. She was not behind her. She did not appear as they waited.
It was cold on the grand staircase as they waited, cold on the cheeks and cold without the warming smells of the kitchens they had all to themselves on the backstairs. Then a wave of warmer air gusted up as the doors to the reception hall opened, another wave when the dining room doors were flung open to receive the relocating guests.
The grand ladies’ breasts did indeed shine like the night sky over an exotic land.
One of the valets on the topmost stair that still had a view, called the names of their betters, the royal coming first. The ladies and the gentlemen paraded behind him like horses, trotting from one room to the next, their pedigree on show. The valet was like a commentator at the races at home in her native Norwich, Tilly thought. She wanted one, any of their betters to look up and see them there, with eyes as alive as diamonds themselves. But all the awareness was in one direction only.
‘The 6thBaron Byron,’ intoned the valet on the stairs.
Tilly stared like her eyes were going to snuff out at any moment. It was the man from the library who’d made the statement about wit. He was as beautiful as any of the women parading past. Fat lips murmured something. He glanced across at his companion, revealing to his devotees on the landing an exotic cleft chin and the shadow of a moustache. Tilly felt parts of her body wake up, parts that had been merely nudged that morning with Edith’s complete revelation of the magnitude of seduction.
The valet droned on. ‘And on his arm, Lady Caroline Lamb.’
Tilly heard tutting and tittering up the staircase. She did not understand. Could only wish upon a diamond as bright as any star, to be that woman at the poet’s side.
The last flight to the attic was always the hardest. A pause on the final landing to gather her remaining strength, and then a push on. Some nights, the pull of their beds was not enough and Tilly and Edith conjured pursuing devils to urge them upward.
No matter their exhaustion, there was a last prayer to say upon their knees. Our Lord who art in Heaven. Tilly knew Edith’s mind was flitting back to the remaining Lords who were in the dining room still, with brandy and cigars from the Havanas, because that’s where hers had gone.
Four souls shared the room. One was absent as Tilly shoved her feet between the bedclothes.
‘Should we leave the candle lit for Mona?’ Tilly asked.
Yes! there is light in that lone chamber,
And o’er her silken ottoman
Are thrown the fragrant beads of amber,
O’er which her fairy fingers ran
In truth, the only thing on Mona’s coverlet was Mona’s rosary beads. She was often the last to find the relative warmth under the covers. Edith and Sally, who always said so little, said Mona had extra work. What that could be was left unsaid; Tilly had not winkled out any more on the subject. Like the others, she ignored Mona’s stifled gulping crying on her return after these late nights. For sure, Tilly felt homesick too.
Sleep felt heavy on her eyelids. This was a day to remember: she did not want to fall to dreams before committing each moment to memory. The beautiful ladies, the smell of roasted pork made sweet with honey, the frontispiece of a volume of Ovid’s epic ‘Metamorphoses,’ a word she must locate in English. When she came to Lord M she pulled her blanket up under her chin. The touch of a man’s hand on her flesh was not the uncomplicated thrill she’d imagined. Words could seduce her. But the blast of spirits on his breath was another thing.
At each remembrance Tilly discovered a shadow: Mona lurking, always there. She listened to Edith finishing her prayers. Realised Mona was not a curse. She was more like the Holy Father, watching over her always.
As if there was something Tilly needed protecting from.
She slept with more words, this time coming unbidden, from ‘The Bride of Abydos’ threading into her dream.
Where the virgins are soft as the roses they twine,
And all, save the spirit of man, is divine