An Air That Kills
Morgana Somerville – 2004
I have always been a good girl, I tell myself sometimes. I have always worked hard and looked after Miss Alicia. I have always been there when she needed me. I have always been a clean girl too. I scrubbed up nicely. Master and Missus gave me a generous number of dresses and pinafores and so on, and I have kept them clean and pressed. I washed my face and hands morning and evening, and was allowed a bath once a week – more if I could wangle it, because it has been no holiday being maid to Miss Alicia. All this needs to be said. I know it sounds lowly and common, but it describes how things were. This is a good house, and I like being in service here; and though I would never have ideas above my station I often feel as though Miss Alicia and I were more like friends than mistress and maid. She calls me “Emma”, which is my name after all – the rest of the household, not to mention Mister and Missus, calls me by my surname, “Hendry”. She lends me her books to read – she lent me David Copperfield and Lorna Doone and lots of others – though I dare say there would be questions asked if they were found in my little room. We talk about them as I busy myself with my work, and sometimes Miss Alicia stops me and makes me sit down, and we discuss them almost like we’re equals.
As I stood behind her earlier this evening, brushing her beautiful, golden hair, I could see that a little frown was furrowing her forehead, as if she was fretting or worrying about something. She certainly was not her usual talkative self, although she often drew in a little breath, as if she were on the point of saying something. I waited patiently. I didn’t feel that I could ask to be taken into her confidence – like friends we may be, but I am still only a servant and may not take liberties. After a while she did speak.
“Yes Miss Alicia.”
“Just ‘Alicia’ – this is a time for being frank, and I do not wish for formality. I wish us to be honest with each other,” she said.
“Yes, Alicia,” I said, hoping that she would be encouraged with just that amount of familiarity.
” Last Sunday the Reverend Kerr preached against women lying with each other as a man lies with a woman,” she said, still with a little frown. “Is that what we two do? Do you think that he means the things we do?”
I almost bristled. What a question!
“I’m sure I don’t know!” I said. “I have never seen a man lying with a woman! I wouldn’t know what they do or how they do it! So how can anything we do be anything like that – whatever it is? Anyhow, we’re not women, we’re girls.”
“You’re forgetting that this is to be the evening of my first ball, Emma. Mama keeps telling me that I will consider myself to be a woman from now on.”
“Well,” I said. “I’m sure Mrs Curtis knows what she is talking about. But myself, well, I would have used the term ‘lady’ to describe you, or at least what you will be once I get your hair up and get you into that new gown. Anyway, I suppose as such as I don’t go to balls at all, then I’m still going to be a girl by the time that you come home – and if Reverend Kerr didn’t mention anything about a lady and a girl, then that must be all right!”
“Oh Emma,” Miss Alicia laughed, losing the lines of her frown. “You are the wisest person I know – a philosopher, a debater. If John Ridd had been advised by you he could have tangled old Judge Jeffries up in a knot in no time!” She was referring of course to the hero of Lorna Doone – I knew that.
We spoke no more about this matter, but now it was my turn to be worried. I am a good girl, and would not like to do anything wrong. I am very devoted to Miss Alicia, in a way I have never been to anyone else; I only want to please her and to make her happy. There can be no doubt that she makes me happy. In her presence, I’m happier than I have ever been. I would never hurt her, or make her do anything wrong. No, decidedly Reverend Kerr is a man of the cloth, almost a gentleman therefore – like Mister and Missus are gentry – and if he says something is so then we have to believe him. I never hear his sermons, because I don’t go to St Anne’s down in the town, but to little St Mary’s chapel down the lane, later on a Sunday with the other servants, and usually a curate comes and takes the service. But if Reverend Kerr has been talking about something being bad, then it can’t be our togetherness – mine and Miss Alicia’s – because that is all goodness and sweetness!
I helped Miss Alicia to put her hair up. I wish I had golden hair like hers, but I am dark like all our family. I once said as much to her, and she told me not to be silly, and that I was very pretty with my straight, dark hair. I did blush. I always do blush when Miss Alicia says nice things to me. I can’t help it. Even when we are very together in our togetherness, even when we are simply “Alicia” and “Emma” and forget that we are mistress and servant, her compliments make me blush. But I must confess it is always a blush of deep pleasure!
With her hair up, I could see her neck, so pale and beautiful. I just gazed at it, longing to kiss it – but this was not the right time for that. But I did catch Miss Alicia’s eye in the mirror. She was smiling at me, and that made me feel all right, and I smiled back at her. When she was all dressed – gown, long gloves, fan, a few modest pieces of jewellery – I stepped back to admire her. I had to hold my breath. She was such a lady, such a beautiful lady! No longer the girl I knew, but if I looked I could see that the girl was still there, underneath the lady. It was almost as if she was playing at being a lady, almost a game of dressing up! I felt a lump in my throat, and had to hold back tears; I felt as though the girl I knew was going away, and someone was gradually taking her place – a different person I didn’t know.
She lowered her face, then looked up with her eyes. A little smile played on her lips.
“How do I look?” she asked.
“Perfect, Miss,” I said. I couldn’t say anything more.
Just then we heard someone calling from downstairs.
“Oh!” exclaimed Miss Alicia. “Mama wants me. It must be time to go!”
She darted towards the door, but stopped suddenly and held out both her hands to me. I took them in mine.
Hope you enjoyed this snippet… from our ebooks-for-adults site “Honeymead”.