The large Georgian house in its cold, grey stone, stood tall and menacing against the clear sky as Sarah slowly ascended the steps leading to the main entrance. Putting down the carpet bag that held what little possessions she had, Sarah rubbed her sweating palms down the side of her coat before she grasped hold of the brass bell pull, and gave a sharp tug.
Immediately, the peace of the afternoon was interrupted by the loud ringing of the bell. Sarah stood nervously waiting, not knowing what to expect. After what seemed a life-time, the large wooden doors opened, and she was greeted by a tall, thin gentleman in his forties who stared at the figure in front of him before addressing her in a clear well-spoken voice.
"May I help you?" he asked with a puzzled expression.
"I'm Sarah," she replied, her voice quivering slightly. The gentleman said nothing, but continued staring at her. "Sarah Richards," she added. "The new second-housemaid." She was beginning to think there had been some terrible mistake, when the gentleman's face softened, and he broke into a gentle smile; clearly the words 'second-housemaid' had jogged his memory.
"Of course," he said, moving to one side. "I have been expecting you; please Miss Richards, do come in."
They entered a large hallway, and Sarah looked about her in awe. She had never seen anywhere as spacious or with such elegance. Two beautifully carved chairs stood either side of a grand stair case, and the ceiling was edged with coving, finely decorated in gold leaf. Sarah found herself utterly captivated with the grandeur of it all, and would probably have remained so had the gentleman not spoken.
"My name is Mr Stanton," he said, "I am the butler here; this way if you please, Miss Richards." Sarah continued looking about her as they walked. Mr Stanton stopped and turned towards her. "There is something I should mention to you Miss Richards," he said in a half whisper. "Servants are never permitted to enter through the main entrance, but must make their way to the small door at the side of the house," he said, gesturing with his left hand. Sarah looked at him with a worried expression.
"I'm so sorry; I didn't know," she said, blushing with embarrassment.
"So long as you remember in the future, then we will say no more about it Miss Richards," replied Mr Stanton. "Now follow me and I will take you below stairs where you can meet the rest of the staff."
As they made their way across the hallway, Sarah noticed the door to the drawing room was slightly ajar. Unable to resist, she stopped to peer through the gap. A large patterned rug covered most of the floor, on which stood more luxurious furniture. Two beautifully embroidered curtains hung down to the floor, and a pelmet of the same pattern framed a large window that overlooked a well-kept lawn and gardens. Sarah also noticed that on the wall, over an impressive fire place, there hung a large painting depicting a fox hunt. For a brief moment, Sarah tried to imagine herself as the lady of the house; what must it feel like? She was jolted out of her musings by a slight cough coming from behind her. Sarah swung round to see Mr Stanton looking at her slightly amused.
"I'm sorry," she replied.
"That's your second apology Miss Richards, and we have not yet left the hallway." He gestured for her to move on, and they soon came to a narrow staircase. They descended the dimly lit stairs to an appetizing smell of meat cooking. Sarah turned keen eyed, to the butler who read her thoughts.
"No Miss Richards; that is for the master and his family's supper, upon their return."
"Where have they been?" she asked.
"They are away with friends for the weekend, but we expect them back early this evening." The butler then led Sarah across a hallway and into a medium sized room that was in stark contrasted to the one she had just left above stairs. The plain looking furniture stood on a slightly warn rug, and only small framed photographs hung from the walls. She also noticed a white painted fireplace, over which hung a large mirror. "This is our drawing room," announced Mr Stanton.
Although it was neither grand nor large, Sarah felt it had warmth, and a homely feel about it which she found comforting. Mr Stanton then took Sarah through to the kitchen. This was much bigger, with white washed walls, a butler sink which stood in one corner, and a large coal fired range nearby. Various pots and pans hung from another wall, along with a collection of ladles, and in the middle a plainly tiled floor there stood a long wooden table. Mr Stanton introduced her to Mrs Huxley, the head cook; a small rounded woman in her mid-forties, with a cheerful smile and friendly disposition that Sarah liked. She was then introduced to the kitchen maid, Beatrix Stokes; a slim girl in her early twenties with long fair hair flowing neatly from beneath her white cap.
The staff dining room was almost as large as the kitchen and comprised mainly of a large table surrounded by straight backed chairs, with only a few photographs hanging from the walls. They returned to the drawing room, where Sarah was invited to be seated. Mr Stanton then spoke.
"I expect you are fatigued after your long journey from London Miss Richards,"
"I am sir, very tired," she replied. The butler lent back in his chair.
"I do try to make allowances for staff on their first day, and I shall do the same in your case, Miss Richards,"
"Thank you sir," she said gratefully. Mr Stanton stood up and walked towards a bell rope which he tugged firmly.
"I have summoned the head house keeper who will escort you to your room, and I will ask the cook to make up some supper for you as you have missed the last meal of the day." Sarah thanked him as she rose from her seat, to await the arrival of the head house keeper. Shortly the door opened to reveal a large woman; her face stern and unyielding and Sarah took an instant dislike to her.
"Mrs Prossit," began the butler, "This is Miss Richards, the new second house maid."
"Come here girl; let me take a good look at you." she boomed. Sarah did so, and the woman thrust out a large hand. Grabbing Sarah either side of her cheeks, she tilted her head from side to side before releasing her vice like grip.
"How old are you girl," she boomed again.
"Twenty one," replied Sarah almost in a whisper. Mrs Prossit turned to the butler.
"Thank you Mr Stanton; I will take charge of her now," and she waved a hand at Sarah. "Come on girl, collect your belongings." Sarah collected her carpet bag from where she had been seated earlier.
"Let's be away then," ordered Mrs Prossit, and the two of them headed for the stairs. Sarah's legs were aching by the time they had reached the top floor of the house, where the maid's bedrooms were situated.
"This is yours," called Mrs Prossit, opening the door. Once inside Sarah placed her bag on the bed much to her relief.
"Now then my girl," said Mrs Prossit. "This room is for your use only, and never will you permit any of the opposite gender to enter; followers are not permitted. Failure to adhere to this will result in your immediate dismissal." She then produced a small booklet bearing the words 'RULE BOOK' in bold black lettering, which she handed to Sarah. "This is yours to keep child; read it daily, until you have committed it to memory." There was a knock at the door, and a muffled voice was heard.
"I have your food here Sarah," it was Beatrix.
"Well bring it in girl," barked Mrs Prossit and the kitchen maid entered the room carrying a small tray.
"Place it on the bedside table," ordered Mrs Prossit. Then turning to Sarah she added, "I would suggest that after you have eaten, you unpack your bag and go directly to bed. You have an extremely early start tomorrow; five o'clock sharp. You will find your uniform in the dresser." Turning on Beatrix in disapproval, she added, "You had best not dawdle Miss Stokes; down stairs with you, NOW!" she bellowed. Beatrix looked scared.
"Yes Mrs Prossit," she replied, leaving quickly. The portly woman followed her through the door, then stood in the hall; and leaned her head back in the doorway.
"Don't forget what I told you my girl," she snapped as she closed the door behind her.
The room suddenly felt quiet and empty. Sarah rose from the bed and walked over to a small window which she opened, and as she looked out over the splendour of the Berkshire countryside, she breathed in the sweet fragrance of the evening air. Closing her eyes, she listened intently to the chorus of birds as they sang from the trees. Somewhere in the distance she heard a cuckoo. There was a knock at the door.
"Come in," she called. The door opened, and Sarah turned round to see a young girl, of a similar age to herself, enter the room.
"Hello, I'm Cathy Wilton, the first house maid. You must be Sarah Richards," she said in a voice that was gentle and friendly.
"I am, please sit down." The girls sat down on the end of the bed and talked.
"Are you settling in alright?" Cathy asked. Sarah thought for a moment.
"I think so; I love the house and everything, and the countryside is very beautiful, it's just," she paused.
"Mrs Prossit?" Cathy enquired, imitating the older woman's deep voice and harsh facial expression, and they both laughed.
"Yes," said Sarah. "She's so severe."
"Oh don't let her bother you," replied Cathy. "Nobody likes her, and she has no friends; rumour has it, she used to be a governess."
"Is she the reason why the last house maid left?" Sarah asked.
"Yes," replied Cathy, "Poor Ruby, bless her, she was so nervous; it was all too much for her. She turned with a warm smile, and placing her hand on Sarah's shoulder she added, "But you are different; I can tell."
Suddenly the door opened and there stood Mrs Prossit, filling up the gap admirably. Immediately, the two girls rose from the bed, and the large woman then fixed her gaze on Cathy.
"It's time you returned to your own room young lady; go on off with you," she ordered.
"Yes Mrs Prossit," Cathy replied, leaving at once.
"And high time you were in bed my girl," she added, looking at Sarah before leaving.
Sarah lay back on the bed, and reached over to pick up the rule book from the small bedside table. She flipped through its pages then stopped somewhere in the middle and read aloud. "Staff must be punctual at meal times, must always dress tidily, should always be polite, are not permitted to lock their doors; failure to adhere to these or any of the rules contained herein, on more than one occasion may result in dismissal." Sarah paused, quite astounded by the continuing list. "And trying to commit to memory all these rules is an impossibility, but try telling that to Mrs Prossit," she added.
Sarah placed the book back on the table, and lay staring up at the ceiling with her hands clasped behind her head, wondering if Cathy had been right. "Am I different?" she thought. "Can I manage to stay, or will I succumb to the indomitable Mrs Prossit, as poor Ruby had done, and how will I ever learn all the rules in that little book?" It was not long however, before her eyes grew heavy, and she was soon fast asleep on top of the bed, still fully clothed, right down to her boots.