Title: Only Downstairs
Disclaimer: Not mine.
A/N: Feedback of any and all kind is much appreciated. Don't worry, you won't hurt my feelings. This falls under one of two categories that I tend to write in: obscure femslash.
The only time the house was ever really quiet was when almost everyone had gone to the country for the shooting party, the men first and the women slightly later for lunch. Even at night after everyone upstairs had retired for the night, and all the servants downstairs finally managed to fall into their respective beds, there was a fair amount of creeping about. Mrs. Wilson never seemed to sleep; the sharp clack of her shoes in the corridor was a perpetual constant. And after Mary had gone to the ironing room to wash the Lady Trentham's shirt the previous night, she was certain that one of the upstairs men had come down to carry on with one of the kitchen maids.
So Mary had seized the first quiet opportunity to make her way to the shared bathroom in the female servant's quarters. It would be at least several more hours until the hunting party returned to change for the evening supper. Then she would be busy dressing the Lady Trentham, sharing the latest gossip she had garnered from the servants, preparing her for supper. By the time she helped the aged Countess into her dressing gown and turned the bed down, there would be a queue for the baths. It seemed more sensible to bathe now, while she had the chance.
She started the water, tested it with a hand. She adjusted the water before realizing it wasn't going to get any warmer; at least it was warm enough that she wouldn't be frozen by the time she got out. Carefully, she folded her clothing on a chair next to the tub, as carefully as she would have folded one of the Lady Trentham's expensive frocks. When she finally slipped into the water, she sighed.
Resting her head on the edge of the tub, she allowed her eyes to flutter shut for a blessed moment. It was a moment of quiet relief. For a breath, she wasn't worried that she hadn't laid out the Lady Trentham's evening dress, or that perhaps she had forgotten to do some vital task, and she simply relaxed.
It was intimidating. Mary thought, sitting up and began washing her body. She wasn't nearly as experienced as any of the other lady's maids or valets or footmen. She had only been in service half a year, which was nowhere near comparable to the others who had spent their entire lives in service. It seemed as if everything she did was a mistake, that the others were watching her disapprovingly. Everyone was so confident.
The door creaked open and Mary flinched to cover herself with the woefully inadequate washing cloth. Flushing, she glanced up to see Elsie, the head housemaid enter wearing her robe, towel slung casually over her arm.
"Shut the door, for heaven's sake!" Mary hissed, both simultaneously relieved that is was only Elsie and agitated at the intrusion.
The taller, blond woman smirked. "Don't worry, it's only Lewis and Dorothy." She said indicating the line that had formed for the bath with a tilt of her head, but she obliged and shut the door behind her. "If any of the men get found up here, they get sacked on the spot. Worse luck." She added reassuringly as she crossed the room and moved Mary's clothes to a hook on the wall before setting down her towel.
Mary didn't answer, still feeling self-conscious around the older woman. She had been grateful that she was rooming with Elsie, who was so much more experienced and wiser than Mary was. She'd taken Mary under her wing, so to speak, filling her in on all the necessary knowledge of the house. Who was married to whom, who had scandalous dealings with Sir William, what Lady Sylvia was really like. She exuded a confidence that matched any of the aristocracy of those that lived upstairs.
Grateful for the assistance, Mary was also flattered that the head housemaid had chosen to help her. She might have easily ignored her as the rest of the servants did.
"So don't tell me, you're a convent girl." Elsie teased, prompting Mary from her thoughts. "Or is that Presbyterian modesty?"
Shoulders still hunched, hiding her bareness, Mary glanced over her shoulder and saw that Elsie had shed her robe. The pale green silk shift she wore was nearly sheer, and clung to her body like a delicate veil worn for the appearance of modesty but leaving a great deal visible. Feeling her face flush again, Mary quickly looked away.
She'd admired other women before. But Elsie made her feel as if the room was too hot. Her heart beat too rapidly in her chest, and she felt even more awkward than usual.
"Is the water hot?"
"No," Elsie sat on the chair and pulled out a cigarette. "It won't be until the guns get back. I'd better get in yours."
The wall in front of Mary suddenly went blurry. And despite what she had just told Elsie, the water seemed to her to be very hot. Struggling to take a breath, she held it, realizing that the housemaid hadn't meant in the bath with her, but after her. Anxiously, she attempted to change the subject, worried that Elsie might find her silence suspicious. "Her Ladyship says that Sir William loves his shooting." She said hastily, feeling foolish the moment the words left her lips.
If Elsie noticed Mary's distress, she said nothing. "Yeah, he does. Can't hit a barn door, but he does love it." She put a cigarette between her lips. "It's quite sweet really."
For the first time, Mary turned and half-faced her friend. "Elsie?"
"Yeah?" In turn the blond woman turned and faced her.
"Last night—" She hesitated unsure if she should continue. She desperately wanted to impress the older woman, but gossiping seemed such a mean activity.
"What?" Elsie prompted, striking a match to light the cigarette which was still dangling between her lips.
"No, I shouldn't say."
"Yes, you should. What?" The smile was audible in Elsie's voice, as was the eagerness. All gossip about the goings-on upstairs was greeted by a hungry enthusiasm by the servants. And the head housemaid was no exception.
Gnawing on the inside of her cheek, Mary thoughtfully shifted again, raising dark brown eyes to meet Elsie's pale blue. "Well, when I went down to wash that shirt, I think I saw him in the ironing room." She lowered her voice to a whisper. "He was with one of the kitchen maids."
"No, that wouldn't have been him." Elsie shook her head.
"I think it was. He came down the passage a minute later, and I don't see how--"
Elsie took a long, pointed drag on her cigarette and stood, interrupting Mary. "No. It wasn't him." She repeated sharply with an edge of finality in her voice.
Flinching as if she had been struck, Mary dropped her head, wondering what she had that caused Elsie's tone. So much for impressing her. Dismally, Mary finished washing herself and climbed from the tub.
The two women exchanged places, Mary unable to resist watching as Elsie pulled the light shift over her head while holding her cigarette aloft with one hand. Her skin was light, milk pale where the sun never touched. Feeling her breath hitch as Elsie lowered herself into the tub, water lapping at the swell of her breasts, Mary turned and began drying her hair, hiding her face with the towel. A sharp surge of pleasure started at her groin and coursed through her body from her shoulders to her toes, unbidden, almost like a strong stab of pain.
It was unlike any sensation Mary had ever experienced, unique and wonderful as much as it was embarrassing. No matter what, she was not so naive as to not know what that feeling had been. Ignoring the beautiful woman behind her, she dried herself and pulled on her robe.
Clearing her throat, she resumed her place on the same chair Elsie had been sitting in. "You know how you said Sir William could've had his pick… Between Lady Sylvia and Lady Stockbridge?"
"Aye." Elsie stretched out in the tub, her head resting on the edge and her eyes half shut, displaying none of the self-consciousness Mary had.
"Well, I asked her Ladyship about it. And she said, they cut cards for him."
Elsie sat up and turned, resting both arms on the side of the tub, grinning incredulously. "No!"
Mary returned the grin with one of her own, feeling a warm flutter in her stomach. "I know." She said happily, pleased that she had managed to pique the head housemaid's curiosity. Suddenly, she did not feel so awkward and out of place. In fact, she had found out something that not even Elsie had known. "I can't believe it either. Do you suppose it was a joke?"
"Well, I wouldn't be too sure." Elsie said finally, after considering it with another short inhalation from her cigarette. "You know what I heard?" She started, and then turned her head huffing in disgust. "Oh, just listen to me. Why do we spend our lives living through them?" She asked, disdainfully, leaning back again to the rear of the tub.
"I mean, look at poor old Lewis." Elsie continued as Mary stood and went to the mirror to brush her still wet bangs from her face. "If her own mother had a heart attack, she'd think it was less important than one of Lady Sylvia's farts."
Staring at her reflection in the mirror, Mary hesitated. It seemed completely natural to her that they discussed their employers. After that, what really was there to speak about? She hadn't done anything important or interesting, unless one considered lighting an old Countess's cigarettes and fastening her necklaces as important.
Nothing in her life was as interesting as cutting cards for a rich husband, or a business going under. Mary simply did what she was told and hardly had the opportunity for anything noteworthy or scandalous. When she was old, would two young maids speak of her like they did Lewis? Would they only refer to her as the lady's maid to the Countess?
It was a terrifying thought, even to Mary who was most happy when no one noticed her. She might not want people staring at her, but neither did she want to die a vague wisp of a human being, nothing more than a shadow of her employer. She wanted there to be something in her life that could be said that Mary Maceachran did herself.
Turning, she crossed the narrow breadth between the wall and the tub, dropped to her knees at the edge. Her mouth suddenly as dry as swab of cotton, she swallowed and dropped her eyes when she noticed that Elsie was staring at her expectantly. It was a struggle to raise her gaze back to the older woman's, but she refused to keep her eyes downcast. It was Elsie, not one of those snobbish people from upstairs.
"Why don't we live our lives through ourselves, then?" Mary finally managed to meet Elsie's steady blue eyes, trying not to sound as timid as she felt.
Quirking a brow, Elsie leaned forward slightly. "What do you mean, then?"
Biting her lower lip, Mary pushed herself forward on her knees, closing the gap between them swiftly, knowing if she moved slowly she would never actually muster the courage to do it. She pressed her lips against Elsie's, framing her face gently with her hands.
The older woman stiffened, her muscles tensing in surprise underneath Mary's kiss. Elsie's lips were soft and yielding, and she tasted not unpleasantly of cigarettes and tea. The kiss was brief, too brief, but shocked by her own audacity, Mary pulled away abruptly.
For a moment, the two women simply stared at one another. Elsie's eyes were wide and unblinking. Mary still felt the pressure of the softness of their lips together. Mortified, Mary frantically moved to flee.
How could she have been so stupid and impulsive? Elsie was going to hate her now; she would never be able to look the older woman in the eye again, or any of the other servants for that matter. She couldn't; she would be too ashamed that they might know, what their eyes might hold. And God forbid that the Lady Trentham might find out.
Tears burned behind her eyes, and her heart no longer beat swiftly in her chest. It had slowed its rhythm to a measured agony. She turned to leave, unable to at Elsie's face, afraid of the revulsion she was sure to find there. A solid grasp on her upper arm pulled her back to the side of the tub.
Unable to prevent the tears from spilling over, Mary reluctantly lifted her eyes to Elsie. There was none of the fury or repugnance Mary had been so certain of in the head housemaid's expression. Instead she found a calm curiosity, even as Elsie reached out and wiped away a tear from Mary's cheek with her thumb. The opposite hand still grasping Mary's arm, Elsie gradually pulled her closer until their lips met again.
This time, the kiss lasted for much longer.
And for the first time, Mary felt as if she had lived only for herself.