This story is by Darlene Stasia Stiles and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
It was cold. It was windy. It was raining. I was annoyed. I was nervous. Most of all, I detested the muddy gutters, the damp carriage, and the horrible smell of rain-drenched horse hair. I knew my long skirt would become dirty, and my new long soft cotton petticoat would have to be washed! So, when my carriage ride arrived at Wills Recruitment Agency at 34 Trestle Street on the dank business section of West Shire, London, I was relieved to get this ordeal over.
It was most unpleasant. The waiting area was dark, all the curtains pulled, and the dusty smell of gas lamps and wet wool permeated the air. I held my handkerchief to my nose, and noticed there was no rug to cover the scuffed flooring. Hmmmpf. What a place! I thought. I found a seat in the long hallway and waited. Finally, a voice: “Miss Francois. Please follow me.”
I entered the small room, and an old man rose to introduce himself. “Good Morning, Miss Francois. I am Mr. Wills. Thank you for responding to our request. I must say your profile is quite interesting. Educated at the St. Thomas Hospital, active volunteer in The Lost Children’s Society, and for the past two years you have been serving as Nursemaid and Lady’s Maid at Lord Cavanaugh’s Estate. Most importantly, I see you are a member of the British Nurses Association. Impressive, for a woman of such young years.”
“Thank you, Sir. Now please, pray tell, share why I have been summoned here.”
“Well, it appears you have been highly recommended for a most affluent position by Lord Wellington. One not easily attained, only with longer years of service it seems. However, beyond that, the position is at the Blenheim Mansion for Lady Wellington. The prerequisites are quite strict, and I am pleasantly surprised to have found you.”
I smiled. Of course, you would, you preposterous prude! I thought.
“I have many duties, Mr. Wills. Please, what is the salary?”
“The salary is quite rewarding, Miss. The reason being, travel is required with your Lady Wellington, who will need an interpreter and a guide, and constant companion. A keen sense of culture and society is crucial to evade your Lady from any embarrassments. The salary is 200 pounds.”
I smiled, to which Mr. Wills responded: “The position is yours and begins in two weeks. A carriage will arrive at your present location Monday, October 12. Please be ready. We will find a replacement for you at your current location, as Lady Cavanaugh has agreed.”
Walking out to my carriage I felt an unnerving and restless ache in my stomach, yet at the same time elated over the increase of salary. Being raised at the St. Francis Orphanage certainly made me stronger and the insatiable need to succeed has always been my driving force. Of all the young girls there, I was determined to be, not only the smartest and brightest student, but to observe and learn from the many mistakes my friends had encountered with their misfortunes and poor choices.
The two weeks flew by. I had so much unfinished business for Lady Cavanaugh that I had little time to prepare myself mentally or emotionally for this transition. Unfortunately, no replacement for my position has arrived. Well, little concern to me, I thought. I had to move on.
The carriage arrived promptly on time. It was a most beautiful day. No rain, just that warm gusty wind that accompanied the Fall season. The soft afterglow of the sun touching the brightly colored leaves that gently blanketed the many deciduous trees, leaving the dark brown silhouette of their crooked branches against the horizon. I loved the Fall season, just as much as I loved the beginning of Spring.
It was a long ride to the Blenheim Mansion. The rhythmic clopping of the horse hoofs made my eyelids heavy, and at last, we arrived. Through the shadows of the twilight evening, I did notice the outline of the long winding road once we passed the entrance gates. Beautiful lush green fields, a flowing stream, and a stunning parterre that took my breath away. The Mansion was exquisite and much more spectacular than the Cavanaugh Estate.
Upon arrival, all the servants were gathered for my formal introduction by James, the Butler. I was taken to my sleeping chambers and wished a pleasant evening. My morning would begin at 6:00 a.m. sharp. I, too, had a personal maid which enabled me to perform my duties for Lady Wellington.
Meeting Lady Wellington for my first day was pleasant. Reviewing her daily routine, I was aghast that I had to change her wardrobe three to four times per day, depending upon her schedule of events. Lady Wellington’s health was not the best, having special potions and prescriptions as needed. She was quite elderly, but oh, so refined and elegant. Everything, was “Dear this” and “Dear that”. We became very close and I held her in high regard.
What I found most strange, is that Lord Wellington was seldom at the Mansion. He would arrive occasionally, but only during the evening, and even for those few times, he would depart at early morning. Lady Wellington explained it to me in a most curious manner. “Lord Wellington”, she said, “had many varied engagements which conflicted with her schedule, and their age difference, afforded him much more dynamism. Investments, board meetings, and well, just the oversight of Blenheim left him little time for her engagements.”
Still, I wondered why Lord Wellington referred me. I do remember that one incident at the orphanage. I had returned late from my French lessons, and in passing Sister Sophia’s main office, which was right by the large staircase at the main entrance, a tall gentleman, well-dressed, spoke to Sister Sophia in a direct stern manner: “My expectations are not to be overlooked or cast aside. My contributions and good-will enable you to keep your doors open. Do not underestimate me. I am the benefactor here, primarily for my daughter!”
So as not to be seen, or heard, I scurried up the staircase wondering what that meant. Sister Sophia had always been cordial to me, as much as it irritated her, she made certain I was tutored and well educated. I was so very happy I did not have to work as laboriously as the other orphans, and was delighted I was awarded the St. Thomas Hospital scholarship at 17 years of age in the field of Nursing.
The years went by, and Lady Wellington’s health slowly changed. She needed more naps, and society invitations began to decline. I remember serving her the end-of-day tea before her final wardrobe change. She assured me she was just having a bad spell, and Lord Wellington would be arriving shortly. I comforted her by reading her favorite passages from the Bible, from the Sermon on the Mount.
As I prepared myself for a short rest, I could hear the sound of the horse’s hoofs on the dusty stone covered road below my window. The carriage came to a sudden stop and I heard muffled voices. There was much scurrying in the hallway, as it seemed Lord Wellington and his personal Valet, Samuel, was settling in for the evening, and servants were being awakened to attend their unexpected arrival.
Drifting off into my sleep, I heard a gentle knock at my door. I reached for my house robe and waited. I slowly walked to my door, and heard a shuffling sound and an envelope quickly appeared under my door, accompanied by faint walking as it dissipated down the hallway. I reached for it, opened it, and the message read:
Meet me at the Antechamber. Now.
I placed my ear to the door, listening for any sound. Quiet. No sound. No voices. I slowly turned the doorknob, and gazed down the long hallway, thinking, who would send such a message.
Upon entering the antechamber, I could see the fire’s shadow flickering and dancing on the opposite wall. A man stood by the fireplace, with his back toward me. He said nothing. Out of the shadows, Samuel, Lord Wellington’s valet appeared. He said: “Miss Francois. I have terrible news. Lady Wellington has passed on this evening, and Lord Wellington wishes to speak privately to you. I will be in the Library, Sir, should you need me.”
I froze. Lord Wellington walked over to me, smiled, and then sat in the huge leather divan. He patted the sofa cushion next to him implying I should sit beside him. I slowly sat down on the soft cushion. He looked at me so ever tenderly, and said “My dear, you have performed perfectly for me. Lady Wellington is no more.”
It was him! That gentleman with Sister Sophia! I recognized his voice! I wanted to faint, but instead, placed my hand in his, and meekly said “Thank you Daddy” knowing he is a Monster.