a prelude, of sorts
I think before beginning, it might be worth mentioning that I have always hated the ocean. Maybe this was due to the unruly sea threatening the old estate during the summer months or because of the tales of the monsters lurking in the Pacific. Either way, I swore to myself I wouldn’t waste my time dreaming of sailing to far-off places. I decided fairly early on in my short life that if I couldn’t get there by foot, horse, or carriage, it wasn’t a place God had intended me to be. God has always been known for making the best decisions, I am told. It was for the best, really. Places like Prussia or China were probably full of beasts who kidnap young girls, witches who eat young girls, or poisonous plants who, well, poison
young girls. Being a young girl, it was wise to avoid such monstrous places.
The sea is scarier at night, the quiet crashing on the shore feels ominous when the moon is the only light to illuminate the brutal scene. My own Mum confirmed this fear by reminding me at the tender age of 5 and 3/4 to stay away from the cliff’s edge, warning that the waves will bash me mercilessly into the boulders below if I dared to jump. I don’t think she said it like that, but that was, is rather, the reality of the sea. Not even mum’s sweet tongue could present its murderous tendencies in a kinder light. She had a habit of being hyperbolic, especially when telling stories, but I believed. I still believe most of the time.
Luckily, as I am sure one would find through reading this, I do not share in my mother’s tendencies, as none of this story is in any way hyperbolic– save for the bits that are.
a concerning amount of knives
It perplexed me, maybe perplexes would be better, that an estate like that of which I grew up could be so dark on the inside when the fields surrounding were so bright. The metaphorical darkness on the estate was not really my concern, I was too young to have murdered, committed adultery, or even– god forbid–
, inside its halls. The estate had no moral issue with me and yet it denied me such a necessity as sunlight. It, the house, faced the wrong way at all hours as if it moved against the sunlight. There were no lack of windows, in fact, one would argue there were too many of the damned things to make any sense. The house drooped against the sky like a shy girl on a first outing with a man. Maybe, like a man, the sun was too pushy, hands always lingering where they didn’t belong, thoughts always intruding the air unnecessarily. Maybe the house shielded me from more than I understood. Regardless, playing a good naive girl, I relished in the sun and its trivial conversations– even enduring its burns.
Due to my unrequited love for the sun, the spring and summer months were always my favorite as a child. My mother would let me skip most of my tutoring to help her in the gardens, although my help usually amounted to me carefully plucking the fruits of her labor and offering up bouquets of her own flowers. Mum pretended that teaching me how to tend to plants was a metaphor for tending to children or a husband. In reality, we just wanted an excuse to see each other as people who liked plucking flowers and saying “fuck” into the open air. “Fuck” being a word I had learned the summer prior from a scullery maid when the teacup she was holding moments before was now only shards on the planked floorboards. I liked the summer the most though because it meant my father would be gone. I was convinced it wasn’t because he was an important man. Important men aren’t named Johnathan or Jonathan– still couldn’t quite sort how he liked to spell it. Regardless, for whatever reason from May until August, he went away on business to the city. Mum said this arrangement was the luckiest arrangement one could have with a spouse, although the maids would comment on how “unusual” it was when they thought they were alone in the washing rooms. I learned fairly quickly that even though most of what the maids thought was cruel, they often told the truth more than Mum.
The maids didn’t really like Mum, she wasn’t how she was supposed to be, I guess. She came out wrong, maybe backward. That's what they said all the time, that she had been deprived of something as a child– oxygen, food, love– and that's why she was so unorthodox. I would have hated to meet their mothers, who I assumed got the right amount of oxygen and love and yet were just as mean and honest as they were. Almost in spite of the maids, Mum and I would prance about the manor dancing together, reading books, and singing strange hymns not sung at mass. Mum cleaned after herself, something that drove the head maid, Anne, mad. “Why are we even here?” She would hiss at the others, scrubbing a clean dish. I tried to leave my messes be to avoid her wrath. Anne didn’t like that I knew her name. Another “unusual” crime me and Mum would commit, calling her by her name to thank her. I worried that every time I said her name would be my last– she had ample time to kill me with all the cleaning done for her.
Although Mum’s idiosyncrasies bothered Anne, sometimes Anne would linger behind wooden pillars and watch us all day. The other maids didn’t seem to mind it too much, maybe they got more work done without her grumbling. I decided, for Anne, it was because a small and secret part of her wanted to participate in being in an unruly family. I liked imagining her joining in during playtime or smiling up to our rooms while we sang to each other across the halls. Anne wasn’t really the smiling type, though. I don’t think her features really allowed for it, honestly. She was a tall and angular woman, I fear if she ever fell her own bones would skewer her insides. She couldn’t have realistically been older than 30, but she had streaks of grey in her already light hair and crow's feet springing from the sides of her eyes that betrayed her. Anne liked to wear this awful red maid’s ensemble despite Mum begging her to dress without regard to her position in the house. I think Mum asked less because it was odd to have someone roaming the house fully covered like a medieval ghost, and more because the red contrasted with her walls.
Ah, those odd and peeling walls. Every summer, without fail, Mum decided she hated the color of the walls and took up the task of changing them. That summer she had chosen an olive green.
“It goes well with the dark wood.” Mum mused, swiping a thick layer of green over the previous plum color. “And maybe Ms. Anne will enjoy this color as well.” She would not.
“I liked the yellow at the shop better.” I challenged, smirking as I did the same to my wall, although with far less care to avoid the mahogany that met the edge of the wall.
“Well of course you would,” she turned to me, pressing her brush to the tip of my nose, “because you are an unstylish little girl.” She cooed, mimicking my father’s voice.
I gasped and wiped paint from my hands onto her cheek, “Take that back!”
“Absolutely not, it’s true!”
Her heels slapped against the tiled floors loudly as I scrambled to catch up to her, giggles erupting from both of our bellies.
The halls were much too elaborate to house women of our nature, rebellious and full of paintings, but no one needed to know that, or would for that matter. Long before I was born there was a scandal of sorts, one that generously ousted us from society. Again, Mum marks this occurrence as luck. We were omitted from parties, ceremonies, funerals, and especially weddings. And again, I cannot help but agree with her. From what I knew of these gatherings from the old instructional books my father kept in the library, books one could only assume he kept in case we were ever thrust back into society, all of those affairs sound dreadfully boring. They all claim to be celebrations of life or death, love or sacrifice, and yet they are really to celebrate the rest of the party-goers escaping a similar fate thus far. Even in the fictional stories of princesses and monsters, I tend to envy the freedom of the beasts to devour whatever they chose rather than of the princess doomed to eat tiny cheeses from even tinier plates.
Luckily, I would lead a life like Mums’ and not have to worry about said plates or cheeses.
It would be a cliche to describe the manor as a maze or palace-like or to even detail the great wood and its great carvings. I will spare the details. The estate was big, eerily dark, and in constant need of appraisal by all those who entered. Estates like that always require compliments, I feared the wood would give out beneath me if I didn’t pay my respects every morning. I felt that I owed the house more than the house owed me.
So, to get it over with: Thank you house, for not falling below or above me, and for enduring the 20 layers of paint that sag your walls. May you find peace in knowing when we all pass, your dreaded foundation will remain. Amen.
As we rounded the corner, nearing the grand foyer of the manor, my mother’s body thudded into another. The giggling no longer felt appropriate but I couldn’t contain myself. Below my mother now was a woman in a maroon dress. As they disconnected and exchanged apologies, Mum suddenly sullen. “I’m sorry, we weren’t expecting guests.” Her voice seemed octaves lower than I thought possible.
“Ah, your husband, Sir Laurent said today would be the best this week to stop by.” The woman replied, her voice preemptively trembling.
Mum wasn’t entirely intimidating before, but upon the mention of my Father, it seemed she might strangle the woman in front of us. “Sir Laurent hardly has the knowledge or authority to make appointments on my behalf. I am sorry; however, I would prefer if you simply returned from where you came and tell my husband to bugger off.”
“Lady.” Mum cut in, her foot now tapping for emphasis in her displeasure– very theatrical of her.
“I’m sorry, Lady Laurent, I am afraid my visit isn’t quite up for debate. I have come to deliver a package.” The woman stood a bit taller and wider like one would approach a bear.
Mum began vibrating, I assume with anger, so I thought it best to intervene. I took a fistful of Mum’s painted dress and grinned at the stranger. “We love deliveries, thank you.”
Her cloudy eyes moved from the woman to me, carefully running over my features before exhaling loudly. “I suppose, but I don’t– fine.” She dug her thumb and index into her temples, “Fine, but in the future, all delivering will be coordinated with me, not Sir Laurent.”
“Oh, I don’t suspect any more deliveries after this one.” The woman swallowed, turning round to make her way back to the ominous carriage behind her.
As she unceremoniously swung the cabin door open, a girl stepped out. Mum’s body tensed under my hand. “A girl?” She hissed, “I’m sorry, do you actually think you are leaving a young woman here like you would a letter?” Her laughter cut into the woman, causing her to flinch.
“Perhaps it would be best if the children went inside and I explained out here?” She offered meekly.
“Oh, fantastic, yes– then there will be no witnesses.” Mum nodded, bounding through the drive. I didn’t know Anne was watching until she chased after Mum, but I was glad that I was freed of my wrangling duties for the moment.
As Mum conducted her diatribe against the woman, the girl heaved her gangly body towards the manor– towards me. She was weirdly tall with tanned skin and dark hair that tangled around her neck like a noose. Her clothes were ill-fitting, the arms coming to just below her elbow and the hem only halfway down her calves. Her clothes were too tight and too clean to have made sense on her, I assume the woman who brought her had shoved her into them to change her. I didn’t like that they had tried and it appeared that she didn’t either. She was dreadful to look at, she was perfect for the estate. I couldn’t help but smile wildly at her. I extended one hand out to her and pressed the other deep into my pocket in search of my journal.
Years ago, Father told me, ‘if you find yourself so interesting, you should document every damned thought you have’. He was being a prick, of course, but it gave me more to look forward to on the daily. Plus, one had to write in order to keep up with the gossip of the maids. The journal was initially just to remember– for whatever reason memories fled me almost as fast as I had made them. Anne gave the journal to me to document my responsibilities but now it had become more of a net for every thought I had during the day, as to prevent its escape. I supposed, now, the journal would come in handy to record the girl to remember her before Mum inevitably got rid of her.
“I’m Eloise,” I urged. She didn’t shake my hand, instead letting me hold it out to her awkwardly for far too long, “I like Elle better, though. Mum was going to name me Elle but Dad thought it ‘too common’. He has loads of bad ideas, mostly about me.”
She stared past me, into the house.
“And, uh, well, who… Who are you?” I laughed to fill the space she made between us.
The girl sighed, rolling her head from one side to the other– as if weighing the idea of talking to me and its worthwhileness. Maybe I should have been that judicial with my words. Finally, her verdict arrived, “Iraia, but Ira will do just fine.” Her voice was low and airy, mysterious– really fucking cool. Ira stood in the threshold trying to look around the halls without looking like she wanted to look around.
“Ee-ray-uh,” I said slowly, scribbling her name in my journal to remember it later, adding ‘cool’ below her name, underlining it a few times. “Is that your birth name? If so, are you from France or somewhere more exotic like Prussia?” I moved aside, gesturing for her to come in, not looking up from my journal just yet.
Ira didn’t reply but did reluctantly duck through the frame.
I shifted my weight from one foot to the other and began to whistle, anticipating a response. I don’t know how to whistle so it sounded more like the wind against a glass pane on an averagely-stormy night.
“This place is really big,” Ira said, finally. She didn’t sound impressed, more disappointed than anything.
“Dad got it from some French relative years ago, I think they died. Or moved,” I tilted my head to look at the ceiling, waiting for her turn in the conversation. She didn’t bother taking it. “ Do you like to read?” I blurted.
“I can’t read.” Ira moved through the foyer and towards the kitchen.
My lips pursed involuntarily as I fumbled after her, “I’m sorry, that sounds dreadful, wouldn’t wish it on my worst cousin.”
“Don’t be, it’s not that useful for me anyway. Maybe more use for the cousin though.” Ira let out a breath she was holding and finally turned to me, “You have green paint on your face.”
“No… I think it’s paint.”
“Olive green, that's the color.”
Ira’s head tilted before she let out a short chuckle and turned back to the kitchen, investigating the countertops and handles of drawers.
I continued, “The paint, uh, we got it from a trader down by Ms. Dubloise’s estate. You’d like it there, they have buttons of every color and paint and even some ducks.”
“I hate ducks.” She grimaced, her hand catching on a drawer and pulling it open to sift through the interior.
“Oh.” I would need to make note of the duck thing later, “I have no idea what’s in those drawers. I’ve never bothered opening them.”
“You live here.” Her dark eyes loomed over her shoulder to meet mine as she pocketed something from the drawer.
“Well, if I need something I just ask.” I scoffed, my cheeks burning now. “The lady’s maids are here for a reason.” I had never thought I would find myself quoting Anne, but desperate times…
“Have you ever thought that what you have is rare? That all of this,” Her hands fluttered in the air as if she was gesturing to something better than the estate around us, “is a privilege many are not afforded.”
I was standing still for too long, I didn’t need a clock to know that, but I didn’t know how to reply– I hadn’t really decided if what Ira had said was an insult or compliment. “Yes…” I said slowly.
Ira scoffed and shook her head, “Do your maids do your comprehension for you as well?”
That was definitely an insult, “Perhaps you are angry with your circumstance, but there is no reason to be cruel.”
She paused and slowly moved towards me, looking me up and down. I stood a bit straighter and took a step away from her. “Sorry, mate,” She laughed softly, rubbing her brow and presenting her hand to me, “You’re right, I’m being a bit of a dick.”
I reeled back a bit, surprised by how easily she slipped into a different persona. I took her hand and shook it briefly before nodding up at her, “It’s quite alright.”
“I just, I’ve never been to a place like this– I expected you to be a bit more–”
She snickered, “Funny, but no, I was thinking snotty.”
“Snotty, huh?” I felt my eyebrows come together and scrunch my nose, “I’ve never been told that before.”
“Don’t take it too personally. Most rich twats are a bit snotty. You? Not so much.”
“You’re strange, Elle, I like it.” A smirk tugged at her lips, “Frankly, I am probably not staying much longer than a month, but I’ll think of you when I’m gone.”
“What do you mean–”
“Darling?” Mum called from the foyer, her heels clicking towards us.
“Don’t worry about it, we can have fun while I’m here.” Ira winked, standing taller now and patting her dress down.
“Oh,” Mum frowned, pausing at the entrance of the kitchen. “Perfect, you’re already acquainted. Eloise, Iraia will be staying with us as a lady’s maid until her godmother can find more suitable housing for her.” She gestured slowly between the two of us, although it felt more like she was mentally measuring the distance between our bodies.
“Why with us?” I asked Iraia and took another step back. Mum replied, “Iraia’s father worked under Sir Laurent for a number of years, her godparents proposed this as a favor.” The answer was too curt for my liking, but I knew I would have to accept it as Mum hated elaborating.
“Now, Eloise, will you wash up while I give Iraia a tour of her chambers and the estate?” It wasn’t a question but I hated that she bothered phrasing it as such. Her easy demeanor and perverse humor dissipated before my eyes as she assumed the role of Lady Laurent. It would have been easier watching her being eaten by a monster than becoming this small cheese eater.
After a lukewarm bath and allowing a maid to shove me into something– uncomfortable– more suitable for guests, I hurried back to the kitchen in hopes of finding Ira. My feet bounced from step to step as I made my way down until a large hand pressed to my chest to stop me at the base of the staircase. I tumbled back for a moment before regaining my balance and preparing a complaint for Anne.
“Lady Laurent has asked that I ensure you maintain a healthy distance from our guest.” She replied to words I had not yet spoken.
“Lady Laurent? Has grandmother been reanimated? And no one told me?” I scoffed, pushing past her, “Lady Laurent can be assured that I am simply grabbing books for my studies, nothing more.”
“Then I assume you wouldn’t mind a companion, Miss Laurent?” Anne glided beside me, her polite words polluted by her demeaning tone. “I would be more than happy to carry any books you need to the study for you.”
I turned on my heels and frowned up at her, “Anne, I have never followed any direction for the first 16 years of my life. Why would I begin now when things have just started getting interesting?”
“It’s Ms. Grange, you know that. You have never been given directions to follow until now, hence not having to follow any. Miss Laurent, I am afraid I am simply the messenger in this matter.” Anne replied, her nose in the air but her eyes carefully fixed on mine.
“A messenger that faithfully agrees with the king,” I grumbled, “Why would I avoid a maid, anyway? What if I needed something washed or cooked?”
“Then you will come to me, as you usually do. Nothing has changed. It would be wise as to not make it so things must change.”
I was fighting a losing battle and yet I found myself too stubborn to stop, “Why is the Lady so scared of me having a friend?”
“You can have friends. Not this one.” Mum replied from behind me, clearing her throat and gesturing for Anne to leave us. Anne sighed and gave a half-heart curtsy before sweeping off into the dining room.
“You’re being unreasonable.” I pressed on, turning around to her.
“Eloise, I try my best to be unreasonable at least twice a day. I guess you just caught me at a bad time.” Her lips turned up devilishly– there she was, that’s Mum.
“Then be unreasonable with Anne and not me, we can do it together, it’s far more fun that way.”
Mum gently cupped my cheek and took my hand in her own. “I agree, I do, but for now, you will have to trust me.” She moved her hand from my cheek and into my hair. “I wouldn’t ask this of you unless I thought it entirely necessary. I need to keep you safe. You are the only heir now, we need you safe.”
It stung worse when it came from Mum, the notion that without… Because of something beyond my control I was next in line for something. Something I didn’t earn or deserve but something that would be mine regardless. I didn’t like thinking about the estate but I liked it even less when I thought of its lonely halls being forever tied to my name. My name and not his. “It’s not about that.” My voice came out scratchy and abrasive, “I want to be alone, now.”
“I can do that, but,” She let me go, “You have to promise you will really be alone.”
Lumpy and cloudy tears welled in my eyes as I nodded, “Fine, will you ask Anne to bring me a copy of Gulliver’s Travels?” Before letting her reply, I hulled my body back to my room, making sure to be alone while I went.
Anne came into my room later, bringing a stack of books with her– mostly my favorites. She set them on the oak vanity beside another pile of similar books. She moved to meet me on my bed, sitting at the foot while I lay sprawled out. The tears were no longer fresh, but I could still feel their red sticky marks on my cheeks.
Anne sighed painfully, “May I be forward, Ms. Laurent?”
I rolled over to face the wall rather than her, if I was going to be lectured, I rather cry in any direction but hers. “Go on.”
“I do not agree when the Lady mentions, well, your acquisition of the estate either.” She said slowly, “I am sorry you are not sheltered from that grief.” I peeked over at her rigid body, she was looking straight forward with her hands placed delicately in her lap.
“I don’t want to think about it. Why can’t she just, just not think about it too?” The words were barely a whisper when they came from my mouth. They felt sacrilege.
“It’s not the same for her, I’m afraid. The feelings are everywhere all the time, she cannot choose to avoid them anymore.” Her head rolled to the side to watch me from the side of her eye, “I will be off to make dinner for the next hour, be sure to read some of Swift we can discuss it tomorrow.” She pushed off from the bed, pausing only briefly before deciding better of it and leaving me.
Sometimes I became concerned I was possessed, mostly due to my innate urge to disobey any and all orders addressed to me– regardless of my supposed ‘safety’. At first, I believed it to be morbid curiosity, especially after having set an entire dress ablaze with a freak candle accident. Maybe ‘predictable candle accident’ would be more apt. Curiosity is what led my body now, pushing it down the dark halls and weaving it through the rooms in search of Ira’s. But in truth, the feeling is closer to a yearning for rebellion. Anne’s assessment had been right earlier, I hadn’t had many rules. When I did, however, I was quick to disobey them. Maybe to assert something to Mum or something to myself. Regardless, I wasn’t entirely concerned with being caught as most of the Lady’s maids were still busy dusting, cleaning, or chatting to notice. It was too late for either Mum or Anne to be roaming around, and even if they did catch me it would serve them right for giving such inane rules. Anyway, I was just going to look through her luggage and that certainly wasn’t against Mum’s rule, well, at least not a
After carefully shutting the door in my wake, I shuffled around to find the match in my pocket. My hip hit the corner of something large and hard, it rattled after the contact and threatened me with its jostling. I hushed the box and struck the match, lighting the candle I had prepared and setting it aside on a stray dresser. The room was fairly empty save for the dresser, cot, and the large trunk below the cot. I briefly rummage through the dresser to no avail, all that it contained were maids clothes and a few rags. I pulled out the trunk, only pausing to briefly examine the moral implications of looking through one’s things before continuing. If God had any issue with it, surely he would smite me– the window gave him easy access and he didn’t seem like the type to not
smite me. The trunk’s lid swung open with a thunk and showed me its interior, which to my dismay, offered as much as the dresser did in insight into Ira. There were small dresses that wouldn’t have fit her, stockings with holes from crotch to toe, and a pair of shoes that only had one functioning sole between them. As I was beginning to accept the idea that Ira was probably terribly dull after all, I leaned on the top causing a soft click allowing the plywood to give and reveal a smaller compartment. Inside the space were around 10 small knives all lined up, some kitchen silver, some more of the pocket, and one that specifically made me swallow imagining it against my throat. She had not disappointed but instead had offered a million more possibilities. I would have relished in my being correct for longer had I not scrambled to close the compartment and trunk before the approaching footsteps reached the room.
“I believe your room is upstairs, Miss Laurent.” Ira mused.
“Elle is just fine, and…Uh, yes, well, maybe I got lost on my way to the washroom.” I cleared my throat, sitting a bit straighter on her cot– the most unassuming position I could have thought of, “It’s a big house, you know.”
“You got so lost you ended up resting in my cot?” She was wearing a uniform that fit her now and her hair was still tangled but it was tied up to be dealt with later.
“I told you, it’s a big house, one gets tired when wondering for too long…” I folded my hands behind me and got to my feet. “Sorry for the inconvenience, but I really must get to bed now.” I nodded, trying to squeeze past her to escape the room.
“Of course, Elle. Sweet dreams.” She chuckled and stepped aside, “Hopefully you can find your way back safely.”
“I will, thank you!” I called back, a bit too loudly, and scurried back to my bed.
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