Nellie entered the morning room, saw Mrs Topdraw in a chair by the French windows, and curtsied.
- You rang, madam? Nellie said, gazing at the woman in the chair who seemed half-asleep.
- Rang? said Mrs Topdraw, did I ring?
- Yes, Madam, Nellie replied, the bell rang downstairs.
-Oh, then I must have rang.
Nellie stood waiting; her eyes fixed on Mrs Topdraw.
- Ah, yes, I remember now; tea, can I have a pot of tea?
- Yes, I'll bring one now, Nellie said, turning to go.
- Oh, wait, Mrs Topdraw said, could you tell me where Mr Topdraw is?
- In his study,I think, Nellie said, remembering what Edna had told her half an hour before.
Lady Topdraw nodded, looked out at the garden, seemed to be somewhere else for a few moments, then turned back to gaze at Nellie.
- My son died, you know, Mrs Topdraw said. Passendale in 1917.
Nellie nodded a few times, walked toward the window, her hands held tightly behind her back, her teeth biting her lower lip.
- Hard to believe at times, hard to come to terms with.
- It must be, Nellie said in a soft voice, coming close to her mistress, standing a foot away, staring out of the window, trying to avoid the eyes gazing at her.
- A telegram came one morning, just a telegram. Mr Topdraw opened it, although I guessed what it was, even though I didn't want to believe it. Mrs Topdraw paused, brought her hand together, looked at Nellie, noticed the hair poking out slightly from beneath the cap, the eyes peering out at the garden.- Did you have anyone in the war, Nellie?
- My brother Fred, said Nellie, turning her eyes onto Mrs Topdraw in the chair.
- Did he return?
- Yes, said Nellie, he was wounded in the backside.
Mrs Topdraw raised her eyebrows slightly, tried to image it but gave up after a few moments. - Safe at least for your mother and you, she said mournfully.
- Yes, Madam, Nellie said, trying to recall her brother's face, his limp, his sour manner.
- My poor son died. Many died. Mrs Topdraw sighed, coughed, wiped her nose with a small handkerchief, and looked out at the garden again.
- Shall I get that pot of tea? Nellie asked.
- We couldn't have any more children, Mrs Topdraw said, as if she had not heard Nellie speak, as if her mind was on other matters more important than tea. We tried, but no more came, she added, her eyes peering at the gardener by the rose bed.
Nellie waited; her mind was beginning to wander, her feet ached.
- I would have loved a daughter, Nellie, Mrs Topdraw said, turning back to the maid, noticing the eyes, the nose. I would have had company when Mr Topdraw was not here.
Nellie nodded, held her hands in front of her, tried to focus on what was being said.
- I would have named her Elizabeth after my mother.
- I like Elizabeth, Nellie said, thinking of a cousin by that name, a tall girl with a slim figure.
- But another son would have been frightening; I may have lost him, too, mightn't I?
- I suppose you might, Nellie said, feeling awkward, wondering what Edna was doing, thinking of the other maid's hand on her stomach the night before as they hugged in bed against the cold air in the attic.
-Timothy wanted to go to war; wanted to be where his friends were, Mrs Topdraw said with a sigh, wiping her nose again. Natural I suppose; to want to be one's friends; to want to serve one's country.
Nellie began to fidget; her hands played in front of her like mischievous children.
- Sit down for few moments, Nellie, Mrs Topdraw said, pointing to a chair on the other side of the French windows, take the weight off your feet.
Nellie sat down as she was told, stared at her mistress, wondering if she had heard her correctly.
- You two girls are always on the go; I see you rush here and there from dawn to dusk, Mrs Topdraw said, looking at the maid's hands in her lap, noticing the redness around the knuckles. Five years ago, she said suddenly, looking at the maid's shoes, the blackness, the black stockings.
- Five years ago? Nellie asked, not sure what was being said.
- Since my Timothy's death.
- Oh, yes.
- One doesn't forget.
- No, said Nellie quietly, I guess you don't forget.
- Always there in the mind.
Nellie felt an itch in her groin; wanted to scratch, wanted to scratch but daren't.
Mr Topdraw hides himself in his books and work. I have no such hiding place or distraction, Mrs Topdraw said, sighing, feeling her eyes beginning to water. I sit here some days, stare out at the garden, and wonder where it will all end. Do you Nellie?
Nellie caught unawares, gazed at her mistress, wondered if it was a question or whether she ought to speak or remain silent.
- Don't you ever wonder that, Nellie? Mrs Topdraw repeated, studying the maid's blank expression.
- Wonder what, Madam? Nellie asked, unsure what she was to say.
-Where it will all end?
- Sometimes, Nellie said.
- And what do you answer yourself?
- I don't have an answer for myself.
Mrs Topdraw nodded; looked away, spotted the gardener pruning a rose. The girl seemed a fool, she mused, watching the gardener engaged at his work, lost to all else.
- What do you answer, madam? Nellie asked suddenly, the words escaping before her mind could stop them.
Mrs Topdraw turned, stared at the maid, noticed her cap askew, the hair seeking to escape. - I have no answer either, Nellie, she said, wishing she had, wishing she knew the answer to her life's woes, her son's death, her husband's coldness.
Nellie said nothing; she wanted to scratch the itch in her groin.
If Edna was there she'd scratch it for me, she mused, trying not
to smile, pushing the thought from her mind.
- I'll have that pot of tea now, Mrs Topdraw said, breaking away from her thoughts, sensing the maid's fidgetiness, her mind on other matters, the hands playing in her lap.
Nellie rose from the chair; she curtsied and walked back across the room to the door. At the door, she paused at stared back at her mistress. Mrs Topdraw smiled, then looked away, her eyes once again on the gardener, her mind on her son, her loss, her emptiness. Nellie opened the door and left the room. Outside she leaned against the door, scratched her groin until the itch was gone, thought of Edna's kiss on her stomach as they lay down to sleep in the cold dark attic. Bliss, she murmured, bliss, bliss, bliss.