By Enriqueta Carrington
Enriqueta Carrington teaches at Rutgers University. Her stories and poems have appeared in several publications, including Carnelian, WAH Top Ten, and Pedestal Magazine. Her poetry translations are scheduled to appear in Rattapallax and US1 Worksheets. She is the editor and translator of TREASURY OF MEXICAN LOVE POEMS, QUOTATIONS & PROVERBS (Hippocrene Books, 2003). You are invited to sample her work at http://www.geocities.com/EnriquetaCarrington.
My name is Daisy, and as under parlour-maid I was right there in the grand ballroom when Milady's diamond necklace was stolen, the one with the whopping big stone called The Dragon, worth a zillion, they say. Took it right off her neck, they did, and in the middle of a crowd, too!
Milord and Milady give this enormous ball every New Year's Eve, it's a family tradition kind of thing, and everybody who is anybody has just got to be there. And plenty of us who ain't nobody too, since somebody's got to do the serving. It was my first ball, and I was nervous as a day-booh-tantee I was. My first job too, it was fresh out of school I was. The ice kept tinkling in the glasses on my tray, my hands trembled so. All those lights dazzled me, and what with the band and the talking, my mind was waltzing round and round.
I had been at the manor only thirteen days. I arrived right behind an armoured lorry, in its shadow you might say. The lorry drew up to the circular driveway before the great front door. Three guards with guns climbed out, and then a man in a suit. They carried a box into the manor. Four men for one little box – you just knew something was happening, and it was. They were bringing Milady’s diamonds from the safe-deposit box in the bank.
I followed them in. The entrance hall was so big and I was so small, I wanted to walk close to the walls like a mouse, but I kept my chin up and spoke to the footman – James, that would be – “Wrong door, young lady,” he sniffed. “This entrance is not for the likes of you.” After two seconds he added, “Or me.”
He sent me to Mrs Tompkins. “She’ll show you your duties,” he said. And Mrs. Tompkins – the housekeeper that would be – showed me my place. “You must dust every object in the room. Dust the porcelain, dust the frames of the pictures, dust the hooks, dust the arms of the chairs, dust the legs of the chairs, dust the tops of the vases, dust the table under the vases.”
“The flowers, too?”
But she didn’t get it. “I do the flowers meself,” she said.
“Yes ma’am,” I said and twisted my fingers like I wanted to wring out the sweat.
Then it turned out I had to clean the bedrooms too, although they called me parlour maid. All right, under parlour maid. Milord’s room was full of a big bed and the smell of cigars. Milady’s room was full of a big bed and gimcracks, little porcelain doggies, and kitties in pink ribbons, and rosy-cheeked shepherdesses. Quite dotty they looked, and it would take me hours to dust them.
“Why does she need such a big bed if she doesn’t sleep with Milord?” I asked. Apparently that was not the thing to say.
“Mind your tongue, young lady!” she snapped. “And mind your fingers too. That dog cost a small fortune”
I set the porcelain creature down very carefully. “It’s right ugly,” I said. And it was, scowling yet cutesy, like a bulldog Barbie in porcelain. I would have loved to dash it against the wall.
“All of them?” I asked, waving my hand at the files of smirking figurines. I shouldn’t have asked. A smile lit up Mrs. Tompkins’s features and I was in for a lecture on Sèvres and Dresden, and Meissen and Derby and Fukuwara, and Japanese versus Chinese markings, and which were the Victorian and which the Georgian and which the darlings, and which the copies, and which the good ones, and which the priceless treasures. I did the right thing, which was to wring my hands and look impressed.
In fact, I was so impressed that I forgot my feather duster on Milady’s pillow, the broom lying across her doorstep like a tripwire, and the wastebasket on her dresser, gazing at its image in the mirror. Apparently that was not the thing to do. I went back to set things to rights and I found Milady sitting at her dresser, gazing at her image in the mirror. She was wearing the diamond necklace and the Dragon glinted between her plump white breasts. Her prima doughnut bosom, as Deschamps says. Abbie, the lady’s maid, stood behind her, holding up Milady’s hair to bare her neck. Milady turned her head sideways like the white peacocks in her gardens, and gazed at her beguiling self.
She must have seen me in the mirror. She turned and began to scream, “What do you mean by leaving the room in such a condition! Young bumpkin! That’s what we get for servants nowadays, country bumpkins!”
“I’m from London meself, ma’am,” I said, “I understand where you coming from.”
Apparently that was not the thing to say. She flipped the diamonds off her neck so she could scold more comfortably. I couldn’t help meself then and gasped, “Milady! Such a simple clasp! Anybody could grab that necklace. Just like that!” I snapped my fingers. Apparently that was not the thing to do. I really heard her screech then. Just like a peahen it was.
That evening, at supper in the servants’ hall, Abbie told everybody about it. “Snapped her fingers right in Milady’s face! Like so!” She demonstrated and giggled. “You should have heard Milady scream!”
A shocked murmur went around the table, then some chuckles and a squeal of laughter, and suddenly I burst out crying and ran away. And you know what? The butler himself followed me, to reprove me in the jam closet.
“Daisy! You must not say such things,” he said. “It is not in your best interests.”
At first I was too shy to look at him. But when he said, “Such thoughtless words could lead to trouble,” and explained just what kind of trouble he meant, I began to smile.
Now most folks think a butler's got to be dignified, pot-bellied and bald, but Deschamps is not at all like that. Well he is dignified, but not pot-bellied or bald. He's tall and strong and slender, with thick wavy hair swept back from a magnificent brow. That came out well, didn't it? “Magnificent brow.” You see I'm learning to talk like Deschamps.
Well, he made me see my mistake all right, and soon I began to enjoy the closeness of that magnificent brow. Then he went on to explain things and I began to see visions of meself rising in the world. “You mean I could become a real parlour maid some day?”
“Milady’s lady’s maid?”
“Better than that.”
I came out of that jam closet inspired. In the next few days, I earned the nickname of “Dizzy Daisy” and many snide comments about “another Daisy Disaster”, but the only doggy I broke was a cheap one, and I was still hanging on to my job when the New Year’s Eve Ball came round.
The grand ballroom was all lit up with enough electricity to run a city, let me tell you. Dazzling light from the crystal chandeliers, glinting on the ladies' jewels, on that famous diamond lying so comfy on Milady's plump white bosom, as she stood receiving her guests, with her lord at her side. Such an uppah-class accent on her lips then, such a sweet and gracious voice – she keeps her screech for the likes of us. The orchestra struck up and the gentlemen started twirling the ladies around and around so that I thought they must get terribly dizzy. Waltzes by the Strausses it was. At least that's what Deschamps said, and he knows everything, or just about.
He was everywhere at once now, quietly directing us, so that the gentlefolk were well supplied with wine, can-ah-pees and caviar, while never noticing who served them. Used plates and glasses had to disappear just as silently. It was invisible as ghosts we were, but hard-working ghosts. Deschamps had his eagle eye on us all, kept his footmen on their toes, and managed to say an encouraging word to the jittery young maids. Even to me.
One minute before midnight, the hum of elegant conversation ceased, and they all stood with their glasses of champagne raised, ready to toast the New Year. The grandfather clock, which Deschamps keeps perfectly attuned to the Big Ben in London, began to strike twelve. Big, deep strokes they were, and at the sixth stroke the lights suddenly went out. A shocked murmur ran round the ball room, with a few suppressed exclamations.
Then Milady screamed. But really screamed, enough to bring down the chandeliers, it was. I was standing right behind her then, and that screech made me upset a tray of champagne glasses, even though I'd already placed it on a table.
“My diamonds! They're gone! I've been robbed!” Now the guests heard Milady's peahen call.
I was that scared I could have screamed meself, or gone whole hog and swooned like a lady. But just then Deschamps's hand came down, warm and reassuring, on my own. His touch lasted one second, and then he was gone. But that was enough. I knew I'd be all right. I just thought how silly Milady had been about that clasp.
“Lock the doors!” Milord roared in the darkness. “Let no one leave the room! Deschamps, where are you?”
“Here, my lord.” The butler's voice came from above our heads. “I'll have the lights back on in a minute, my lord. This chandelier has given trouble before.”
Yeah, all of us saw him working on that retarded chandelier the previous week. Now we could hear the crystal drops tinkling as he did something to the light bulbs, or the electrical fixtures or whatever they're called.
“Try the switch now, James,” said Deschamps. The footman obeyed, and suddenly we were all blinking, dazzled by the light.
Then we saw that Milady's plump white neck was bare. The butler was standing on a chair, which was placed on top of a table. He had even pushed back the tablecloth, so as not to soil it. He thinks of everything, he does. The doors had been closed, and stout footmen stood in front of each one, their arms crossed.
Milord then gave a little speech, apologizing to his guests for the inconvenience and the indignity of it all. Very polite he was, but he made it clear as ice that they must remain in the ballroom until the police arrived and searched everything and everybody, whether they were anybody or not.
So they did, most thoroughly. Three hours they took about it, but they could find nothing, and at last Milord had to let his guests go. They went with their tails between their legs, they did, some leaving the castle, others climbing the stairs to the bedrooms which Milord's cold hospitality afforded them.
Two weeks later, the police had made no progress in solving the mystery. Perhaps the thieves had left immediately after grabbing the diamonds, before the doors were closed. But how could they have crossed the wide ballroom so fast? And nobody seemed to be missing from the room when the cops arrived. Professional thieves, the inspector said.
James reported this in the servants’ hall, and I wrung my hands “Ooie! And we were right in the room with them,” I said. “It’s scary, it is.” Deschamps lifted an eyebrow at me.
“They claim every room was searched, and every person,” he said. “But they excepted a certain place and a certain person.” Deschamps waited for our Whos and Whats and Wheres and then added: “Why, Milady herself, and herself’s room.”
“Milady! But why would she..?”
“Ah, but who will search her room?” James asked.
“Who will bell the cat?” Deschamps retorted.
Two weeks later, things had quieted down. I chanced to meet the butler in the grand ball room, where I was dusting. He was up on a chair, on top of the table again. He carefully disentangled the diamond necklace from among the brilliant crystal drops of the chandelier.
“You're so clever, Deschamps,” I murmured.
“I could never have done it without you.” His whisper was warm. “You snatched the necklace very cleverly. Bravely, too.”
It didn’t take me long to pack, let me tell you. I just ran up to Milady’s room and wrapped up a few doggies and shepherdesses in linen napkins and shoved them into my suitcase. Never mind my undies! Each doggy a small fortune, they made a nice little addition to the diamonds. Now we're safe on this sunny Caribbean beach, whose name I don’t choose to remember. We’re living swank as the best of them, and wealthy as What's-His-Face, and now I can safely tell you all this. So that’s the story of my first job. But now I'm off for a swim, and then it’s Vittorio’s for dancing and dinner, so ‘bye. I remain yours truly, Daisy Deschamps.
Enriqueta Carrington ©2005
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