Disclaimer: Gosford Park and all related elements, characters and indicia © Sandcastle 5 / Chicago Films / USA Films / Capitol Films and the Film Council / Focus Features / Universal 2001. All Rights Reserved. All characters and situations—save those created by the authors for use solely on this website—are copyright USA Films / Focus Features / Universal.
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Author's Note: Written for slinkling for the Yuletide 2007 Challenge.
The Servants' Ball
by Tara O'Shea
Mary MacEachran had never been to a proper Servants' Ball before.
Her mother had told her about them, from back in her days of being a nursery maid at one of the great houses. She'd told Mary stories of life "behind the Green Baize Doors" the whole time she was growing up, and when her father died, it had seemed quite sensible to Mary to go into service. After all, she was the eldest, and her mam insisted it was a safe, decent, honest living for a young girl from a good family.
The house where Mrs MacEachran—then Miss Fraser—had worked had a large ballroom on the first floor, with murals painted all round the sides. During the season, there would be balls every week, and the rest of the year it would be shut up while the family was in town. When they went to Edinburgh, they only took some of the servants with them. The rest either took temporary positions elsewhere, or they worked on half-wages called "board wages".
Mam said her master and mistress threw a ball just for the servants on Boxing Day. It had sounded so lavish, so extravagant. Each of the upper staff—the butler, the housekeeper, the cook, the head housemaid, and head footman—was allowed to bring two guests, and each of the lower staff, just one. In addition to the house staff, all of the grounds staff would come as well, from the grooms to the gardeners to the gamekeepers. Women wore gowns they had made over from the ladies of the house's cast-offs, or had bought second-hand. It was no shock to see the upper menservants in finery, since most of them wore livery every day and white-tie and tails when they served dinner. But it had been amazing to see kitchen maids done up in colourful gowns, their hair free from caps, dancing the night away. There were matches made, her Mam had told her. And many a babe born that August who most likely was the result of dancing and larking and drinking and living "as the other half lived" for one night.
Lady Trentham didn't hold with them—needless extravagance she called it, though the servants' hall gossip was that she was just pinching a penny as far as it would go, despite the fact that Lady McCordle had increased her allowance to twice what it was yearly, before Sir William's death. Mary had told no-one about her pay rise, except she was now able to send her Mam an extra five and six a week.
Mary had never hoped to see a servants' ball, until Lady Trentham had announced they would be spending Christmas at Gosford Park.
The house was to be full to bursting with family, as Lord Carton would be there, and each of Sylvia's sisters and their children. So on top of the usual house staff, there would be chauffeurs, valets, lady's maids, nursery maids and even the Meredith's governess as they were bringing their two small sons with them.
Gosford, Mr Merriman had told her as they drove up from London, always had quite a 'do'. It had been part of what he called Sir William's noblesse oblige, which Merriman pronounced "nob-liss ob-ligate". Playing Lord of the Manor and all that. Not only would the house servants be there, but all the tenants and their families, as well as visiting servants. The large ballroom on the second floor would have food and dancing until eleven o'clock, the party having to end early since all the staff would have to be up early next day to attend to their normal duties. All the arrangements had been made months before, and Lady Sylvia hadn't cancelled them, despite her insisting that "any day now" she'd be selling the house and taking up permanent residence in London.
Mary had been petrified when she realised that as a lady's maid, everyone would expect her to be dressed to the nines, and perfectly coifed. But her hair was straight as a pin and refused to hold a wave, and she couldn't imagine what she would do for a frock as she had little time in the evenings to make over a dress to fit her. Not when she had piles of Lady Trentham's mending to do.
Providence provided in the end. When she arrived and the stern Mrs Wilson had asked if Mary had evening dress for the ball, and she'd replied all she had was her Sunday best—a plain blue muslin that had seen better days. She had been shown to Elsie's old room by May, who was now Head Housemaid. Renee and Sarah were sharing a room across the hall, with Miss Ealing, the Meredith's nursery maid, staying in the children's suite.
Mrs Wilson had appeared in her room that evening with one of Miss Isobel's gowns which had been had cast off after the hem had been torn on a nail. Elsie, had she been there, would have either mended it, or been given it as she'd acted as Miss Isobel's maid since her coming out. But since Elsie had gone, it had hung in the ironing room, forgot. Mrs Wilson supposed that Mary and Miss Isobel were of a size, it might suit her fine.
"I don't know what to say," Mary had said as she'd taken the gown and folded it reverently over her arm.
"There's nothing to say. You're here as a Countess' lady's maid. You should look the part." Rather than a glowing compliment, it came across instead as simply an observation on how the proper picture should be presented. Order imposed on a world of chaos. In Mrs Wilson's case, through sheer force of will. "They'll be finished with their tea soon. Lady Trentham has been put in the Chinese Room. If there is anything else you need, please let me or one of the housemaids know."
"I will. And Mrs Wilson?"
"Yes, Miss Trentham?"
"Will..." she'd trailed off, unsure of how to phrase the question. Mrs Wilson's steady gaze had unnerved her, and drawn blood to her cheeks, and she'd swallowed nervously. "Will Lord Stockbridge be celebrating the holiday with his sister's family?" she had finally asked, trying her best to keep a quaver from her voice.
Mrs Wilson's eyes had widened, but that was the only sign that the question had affected her. "Lady Stockbridge is already in the red drawing room. Lord Stockbridge has been detained in the city. I doubt we will see him at all this year."
"Will that be all, Miss Trentham?"
"Yes, thank you."
Taking the gown from its padded hanger, Mary had been amazed the dress had survived, with a house full of girls who must have coveted such finery.
It was a plain sea-foam green satin with skirt cut on the bias to be full from her knee to the floor. She spent the evening in her room rather than the servant's hall, mending the tear, taking up the hem and sewing a penny's worth of lace inside the low draped neck, as she was rather less endowed than Miss Isobel. Not only would the lace satisfy her modesty, but it would help keep the thin straps from slipping down her shoulders. She fretted about the back, which was cut too low to wear a proper brassiere, as it would show.
But she thought if she kept by the punchbowl and didn't dance, she might be alright.
It had only been a month since the murder. Mary had expected Lady Sylvia to still be in mourning black, yet when she had come up to Lady Trentham's room before dinner, she wore a velvet dress of deep crimson, her nails varnished to match.
The family would have dinner at the normal time, waited on by Jennings, the footmen, and May and Ellen. The valets and lady's maids would still be expected to attend to their masters, but Lady Trentham had surprised Mary by telling her to have a splendid time and not to stay out too late. There had been a twinkle in her mistress' eye as Mary had left her after dressing her for dinner to run upstairs and change into her borrowed finery.
Mary shyly asked May to help her, and the younger girl had said nothing about Mary wearing one of Miss Isobel's dresses, but had helped her fasten up the dress at the back, and pin her hair to one side with a jewelled comb from Woolworth's. The jewels were paste, but it had been a Christmas gift from her mother. Her eyes had filled with tears when she had opened the parcel. This was her first Christmas away from home, and it was difficult being parted from her mother and younger siblings.
Mary's Christmas gift from Lady Trentham had been a length of fabric to make into a new dress, and a pair of kidskin gloves. The gifts had been presented that morning in the drawing room, where the house servants and visiting servants had assembled in one long queue in front of the tree which had been decorated with blown glass balls and silver tinsel. Mary knew about her gift before she'd unwrapped it, as she'd been the one to pack her Ladyship's things for the visit. But she curtseyed nicely and gave a proper thank you, knowing it was more than most would receive this year. Only Mrs Meredith's maid, Sarah, had got a pair of gloves as well. But they weren't as fine as Mary's, because Commander Meredith was still skint, Barnes told them when they had their tea, and Sarah had blushed scarlet and refused to talk to him for the rest of the afternoon.
"You don't think I look too..." She trailed off, her hands fluttering helplessly. Though she was covered from head to foot it left her shoulders bare, and she had no wrap. She kept resisting the urge to cross her arms in front of her.
"A little lippy, and you'll look like a film star," May said with a giggle. Mary had coloured, thinking of how she'd made such a fool of herself over Ivor Novello. Elsie had written to her from California, and in no uncertain terms made it perfectly clear that had Mary managed to find herself in the matinee idol's company, her virtue would have been perfectly safe as he "prefers a different sort entirely. Of the musical variety".
May looked lovely, her blond hair cropped in a chin-length bob, and she wore a lilac gown that her sister had got from her mistress, a vicar's wife. Both of them wore black shoes, as they had none to match, but at least Mary's skirt was long enough that no-one could see them and her plain black stockings beneath. They walked down to the second floor together, and Mary held her breath as she stepped through the green baize doors to the main corridor. She could hear music coming from the ballroom already.
There was a buffet set up in the centre of the floor loaded high with cold chicken and beef, and musicians from the village alternated between lively country dances and staid waltzes. Among the men in black and white tails there were plenty of outdoor staff in their Sunday best as well as checked trousers and red neckcloths. They tended to sit out the waltzes, but take to the floor with great gusto for the reels and polkas.
Mrs Wilson and Mr Jennings led the dancing, and then once the party was in full swing, Mary saw Wilson retire to a chair near the door with a glass of punch. Mrs Croft, nearly unrecognisable in a dark blue silk frock, soon joined her. Wilson scowled at Mrs Croft's cigarette, but Mary was surprised and shocked to see them speaking not just civilly to one another, but even warmly as they kept watch over their respective staffs.
Mary thought Miss Lewis looked a bit lonely, as Mr Probert had gone off to his sister's. She wore a dark blue dress with a square neck trimmed with lace that seemed like something from a forgotten age, like the photos Mary had seen of her mother when she was young. Lewis had been with Lady Sylvia since her coming out, Renee had said in the ironing room that morning. Her whole life spent in service, and never a whisper of her having a follower, though there had been rumours once about her and the butler at Sir William's house in town, who was considerably younger and more dashing than Mr Jennings.
The second footman, Arthur, stayed by Mary most of the evening, clearly uncomfortable asking any of the ladies to dance. Dorothy the stillroom maid was on the opposite side of the ballroom dancing with Merriman, but Mary could see her eyes following Mr Jennings as he primly waltzed with Mrs Wilson. George danced with Bertha the kitchen maid, the seams of her dress straining slightly as he twirled her across he floor while the other kitchen maids and tweenies scowled with envy.
As she drank her third cup of punch, Mary felt a light touch at her elbow. She turned, a ready refusal on her lips when she froze.
Robert Parks was dressed in his dark suit and striped trousers, his tie loosened only slightly and one dark lock of hair falling across his forehead.
"Robert!" she gasped. "What are you doing here?"
"Asking a lady to dance."
"No, I meant—"
"I know what you meant." He held out his hand, and before she could check herself, she gave him hers. He pulled her gently out onto the floor.
"I came with Lord Stockbridge. He finished up his business in the city, and decided to join the family. We only just got in an hour ago, and he gave me my leave to come to the party. Anyway, I thought you liked surprises." His eyes creased at the corners as he smiled. "I must say, though, I feel a bit underdressed."
She blushed as his eyes travelled from the top of her head down to where her scuffed toes peeked from below her hem.
"Then again, I have seen you in less," he whispered in her ear, his breath stirring her hair. She shivered. "Are you cold?"
"No." She met his eyes boldly. "Not cold." She could feel the heat of his skin where his hands rested lightly at her hip and shoulder, and he pulled her closer.
From where she sat by the door, Mrs Wilson's eyes fixed on them as they danced. Robert saw Mary glance over his shoulder, his eyes tracing her gaze until they rested on Wilson.
"Even at a party, she's like a crow, all in black. Gives me the willies."
"You shouldn't say such things," Mary scolded him.
"Why not?" He laughed merrily. "If she wants a turn, she'll have to wait. My dance card is currently full up."
Mary's hand tightened on his shoulder as she saw the housekeeper rise and flee the ballroom.
"Jane!" Mrs Croft called after her, and Robert froze at the sound of her name. The other dancers milled around them, but they remained stock still in the centre of the floor.
"Robert, don't—" Mary whispered fiercely, and he looked at her in wonder. All at once his dark green eyes went wide from shock, then narrowed in anger.
He released her as if her touched burned him.
"Robert, please," Mary whispered as he stepped away from her. His face a carved mask, he bowed to her stiffly and then stalked out of the ballroom.
With the servants' ball not yet half over, the garret rooms were deserted. Mary made her way to Robert's room without thinking of anything except the look on his face as he'd left her. Anger, hurt, betrayal. But more than that, it was as if his entire life had crumbled before her eyes.
She didn't knock but walked straight in. The sense of deja-vu almost overwhelmed her as she saw him bring the match to the end of his cigarette, and take a long drag. His jacket hung on a peg on the wall, and his white shirt was half unbuttoned.
Her eyes darted to the photograph sitting in its frame by the side of the bed. The glass was broken, and the photo lay face-down on the table. She could see faint writing across the back, but was too far away to make out the words. Next to it was his toothbrush glass, an inch of dark amber liquid still in the bottom.
"You knew, and you didn't tell me. You knew."
She shook her head. "I didn't. Not until after you'd gone. And it wasn't my secret to tell," she said firmly, lifting her chin a fraction of an inch higher. "Robert, you can't blame her."
"Why can't I? What son can't blame his mother for leaving him in that hellhole—"
"She didn't know. Until you said at dinner—about the orphanage. He told her you'd been adopted. He said—he told all of them the same thing. The same lie, over and over." Her voice was a ragged whispered, as if even now she was afraid someone would overhear. "He said he knew a good family, that you'd be adopted into a good family. That's why she gave you up, to have a life she couldn't give you. She never knew. Think. Remember."
He sagged, despair writ across his face as he sat down on the end of the bed, scrubbing a hand across his suddenly weary features. The cigarette clutched in his fingers went out, ash dropping unheeded to the shabby carpet.
"She was alive. I did all this... for her, and she was alive." Without making eye contact, Robert picked up the glass and drained it.
"You didn't do anything," Mary said desperately, and flinched as the glass smashed against the wainscoting, and he grasped her by the upper arms.
"I killed a man, for her," he said savagely.
"No," Mary said, shaking her head. "She killed a man for you."
She stumbled backwards as he released her, clenching and unclenching his fists at her side. But she wasn't afraid. She didn't know him well, but she knew him well enough.
"Sir William was poisoned. Before you stabbed him, Sir William was poisoned," Mary reminded him, her voice gentle. "She did it all for you. To keep you safe. That's what your mother did for you."
"My mother," he repeated, staring up at her. Tentatively, she reached out to cup his cheek in her outstretched hand.
"She loved you, Robert. She loves you still."
She's not the only one, Mary wanted to say, but didn't. He stared up at her, and everything shifted as he turned a fraction and pressed a kiss into her palm.
There was a moment when she could have turned back. Changed course. As she stood there, gazing down at him, the moment passed.
She stepped closer to him as his hand came up to run fingers along the outside of her arm. He didn't stand. Instead, she came forward until her knees hit the edge of the bed and she bent down to kiss him.
His arms came around her waist, pulling her against his chest as he fell back onto the candlewick bedspread. He rained kisses on her bared shoulders, tongue teasing the spot where her neck joined her shoulder. One strap of her dress slid down her shoulder with gentle pressure from his thumb, and he ran his hand along the top of her breasts, fingers extended so he could feel as much of her exposed skin as possible. She gasped, eyes squeezed tightly shut, and he caught her bottom lip between his teeth. Then they were kissing as if they meant to devour one another, the entire length of her body pressed tightly against his. The lace of her dress caught on the buttons of his shirt, and she reached between them to undo them with one hand.
He pulled back, dark green eyes half-lidded and heavy. "Mary—"
"Everyone's downstairs," she breathed against his mouth.
His hands slid up her thighs until the dress was bunch almost around her waist. In one movement she tugged it over her head, and tossed it to the floor where it lay in a pool of green satin, forgotten.
"I never thought I'd see you again," Mary said as Robert ran his fingers lazily up and down her arm. "I mean... I thought you'd leave service."
"I've been in service my whole life. I don't know how to do anything else. A proper job, I mean." Robert shrugged. "And anyway... if I left service, I'd never see you again."
She rested her head on his shoulder, closing her eyes.
"What do we do now?"
"I've got a bit put aside—it's not much, but it's enough for a bedsit."
Mary shook her head, eyes pricking with tears. "I send half my wages home to my Mam. My sisters aren't old enough to work, and the boys are just babies. They need me."
"What if I need you?" he said softly, his breath stirring her hair. The comb that had held her hair away from her face lay on the bedside table, atop the photograph. Robert pushed her hair behind her ear, his hand lingering, his thumb tracing the curve of her cheek.
She was silent, and he sighed.
"The dancing will go until gone 4, May said. Most of the maids don't even go to bed, she said. Her ladyship won't need me tonight."
"Tomorrow, everything will go back to normal."
"Normal," he echoed, incredulous. She smiled, and reached up to push the lock of hair that fell across his forehead back.
There was a light knock at the door.
Jane Wilson opened the door in her dressing gown. Her eyes were red-rimmed, but her back was ramrod straight.
"How can I help you, Mr Stockbridge?"
Robert Parks stepped forward, and gently closed the door behind him.