It Started with a Scandal(10)

By: Julie Anne Long



She gave the keys an insinuating jingle.

“Come now. We servants deserve respect from each other, don’t you think? And respect starts with a bow and a curtsy. Shall we at least begin that way?”

She looked to the maid who had given the tentative laugh. Her face was pale and pinched beneath a floppy cap, and her eyes were enormous. She looked eager for approbation. She stood and curtsied. “I’m Kitty, mum, Kitty O’Keefe. A parlor maid. Pleased to meet you.”

Elise nodded serenely and curtsied.

The man who appeared to be winning all the pennies lumbered to his feet. Tall and lanky, his eyes were pale gray, his nose like the prow of a ship, which lent him some dignity he probably didn’t deserve.

“Ramsey, William Ramsey. Footman.” He bowed. Hmm. Not a bad bow, really. An elegant footman might be hiding in there somewhere.

“Mary Tamworth,” said another woman. Fair hair straggled from beneath her cap, and she was tall and angular, with long arms and bony wrists. Perfect for reaching into candle sconces and trimming wicks, Elise thought.

“James Pitt, footman.” James Pitt stood as tall as Ramsey and, on the whole, wasn’t bad to look at, with even features and lively dark eyes. He appeared to possess all of his teeth. And he bowed elegantly, too.

“Excellent,” Elise said brightly, as if they’d been eight-­year-­old girls who could be refined through a good dose of discipline, encouragement, and by distracting them with an endless stream of things to do.

The compliment seemed to mystify them more than anything. Mary Tamworth looked vaguely pitying. As if Elise was a slow child who hadn’t yet caught on to the rules of the game, and they were all humoring her.

Elise turned to the large woman.

It threatened to become a staring contest until “Dolly Farmer,” she muttered, ironically, around her cheroot. It was more a pronouncement than a statement. As if she’d been reciting the name of a famous battle, which Elise had begun to suspect this would become.

And then she rose from her chair.

And rose and rose.

And rose.

Upright, Dolly was nearly as tall as she was broad, her arms as broad as bread loaves, her bosom a mountain range.

She looked down at Elise with hard, amused eyes.

“I be the washerwoman and cook, Mrs. Fountain.”

She executed a dainty, mocking curtsy.

“And rug beater I should think, Mrs. Farmer. We’ll be doing a good deal of that in the days ahead. Beginning today.”

“D’yer think so, Mrs. Fountain?” Dolly sounded almost amused.

“Yes.”

She stared the woman down in silence, until the woman’s feet actually began to shuffle.

“Now, perhaps you haven’t had the proper training to care for a gentleman of Lord Lavay’s stature, but we can set that to rights straightaway. Has the house been empty long, then?”

“Canna be empty if we’re all in it now,” Dolly said laconically.

Several of them snickered.

“Empty of a tenant like Lord Lavay,” Elise repeated evenly. “You are all, of course, here on his sufferance, and now mine.”

That quieted them.

Suddenly the servant’s bell jangled violently.

Elise jumped. And then spun about.

She would have thought to have heard more snickering.

Instead everyone froze.

“His lordship is calling for you, Mrs. Fountain,” Kitty O’Keefe whispered. “That be your bell.” And then she actually crossed herself.

“Oh, honestly. I’m not going to the front, for heaven’s sake. He might be a prince, but I daresay he puts his trousers on the same way as every man you’ve ever met, one leg at a time. I’ve met him and discerned that no spiky tail protrudes from them. And one cannot wear Hessians if one is sporting cloven hooves.”

Too late she realized this made it sound as though she’d reviewed the back of his trousers, which she had not.

She had, however, reviewed the front of them long enough to note that his thighs filled them out eloquently.

Inconveniently, this is what filled her mind’s eye now.

Dolly Farmer was eyeing Elise as though she read every one of those thoughts. Her eyes were glinting.

“He does go on in that Frog language when ‘e’s angry, which is always. He doesna blink when he talks. He shouts. Asked Mrs. Gordon if she was stupid as easy as if he was askin’ ‘bout the weather.” This came from Mary. “Insultin’, that. Hurts a body’s feelings.”

And he also throws things, Elise almost added with a sort of grim cheer, picturing that stare of his. He’d probably aimed it at subalterns to get them to tell the truth.

“I would shout, too, if the candles in my hallways weren’t trimmed and replaced, and the fires were out, and the house was dirty. I speak a number of languages. I imagine I can carry out Lord Lavay’s wishes regardless of how he chooses to express himself. And his wishes, my good ­people, are our command.”

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