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 Poisontaster for the Yuletide 2008 Challenge. Ginormous thanks to my betas Queen B and Hafital.
by Tara O'Shea
Mary MacEachran was a good girl. Everyone said so.
"Mary is a good girl, hardworking, not given to flights of fancy or wearing make-up. She is a decent, biddable girl who would do any household proud," her mother had written in her first reference, when Mary was a skinny girl who still wore her hair in plaits, and shared a bed with her two sisters.
They had been desperate for the money. Her sisters Eliza and Moira were too young to work, and Mam had just had her second son scarcely a year after the first. Mary had left school when her da died, to help raise them. But the extra mouth to feed was more than Mam's job taking in laundry could support. Like most girls her age, service seemed the only answer. She'd been taught dressmaking at school, and her mam had written an agency in Edinburgh known for placing Scottish girls in English households, asking if there was a place for her in London.
Mary had wanted to find a place in Glasgow, to stay close to home. No hiring fairs for her Mary, Mam had said. "You're too well-brought-up for that," she said, patting Mary's hand. Her mother's hands were chapped red and raw, but Mary remembered as a child how soft they had been. Her mother had worked her whole life in service. It had given her an eye for fine things, and a dream of a better life for her children than that of a skivvy or tweenie.
Miss Fairbairn had written back straight away to say the Countess of Trentham was in need of a lady's maid and was willing to take her on so long as she understood, as a trainee, she would only be earning ₤18 a year. Since she had no French, and no experience as even a schoolroom maid, it was the best offer she could hope to receive.
Packing what little she owned into a single battered case, she left home with a second-hand wool coat, a pair of black shoes with Cuban heels, a blue dress for mornings, and a black dress for afternoons folded carefully between sheets of tissue paper. Both were too large on her, and she had made them over as best she could, since they didn't have the money to buy fabric to make them new. Her last act of putting childish things aside had been to have her hair bobbed. She'd hoped cutting her long hair would make her seem older. But instead of looking smart, Mary feared it made her seem even younger.
London had seemed impossibly far away, but Mary had kissed her siblings good-bye, and held back her tears until the train pulled out of the station. When she wrote her letters, twice a week without fail, she never said how much she hated London. How everyone asked her to repeat everything she said because they claimed they couldn't understand her accent. How Mary had her tea with the housekeeper before she went upstairs to fetch Lady Trentham's clothes out of her dressing room because the head housemaid, Sarah, was supposed to bring Mary her tea in the morning. But Sarah was three years Mary's senior, and it was awkward and uncomfortable.
She never told her sisters how much she missed them precisely because none of the other housemaids liked her, or even talked to her, because they were afraid she'd go telling tales to the Mistress.
The truth was Mary had been too frightened of the Countess of Trentham to tell any tales. When she was prodded by her ladyship for servant's hall gossip, she merely flushed, and tried to keep her eyes on her work, saying, "Nothing of import, my lady." It always frustrated Lady Trentham, who would be short with her for the rest of the afternoon.
Mary was a good girl, never complaining if Lady Trentham went through five sets of clothing in a day and she spent half her day pressing and mending. Lady Trentham only ever complimented Mary once. Their last night at Gosford, she had sat Mary down and complimented her on how she managed "those horrible little men" who had questioned her about Sir William's allowance. Mary had sat, hands folded in her lap, unsure of what to say or do.
Keeping Lady Trentham's cuffs clean was easy. She'd even learnt how to pack and unpack her cases to her satisfaction. She remembered to tell her ladyship her stockings came from France, even if they were plain black stockings from Marks & Spencers. She remembered to keep extra hairpins in the pocket of her black apron, and she never forgot them after the first time.
But Mary had never been praised before for being an excellent liar.
Merriman tells her she's kind, when she brings him sweet milky tea as he tunes Lady Trentham's motor out in the cold and damp. Mary never once lets the smile slide off her face even though she only brought it to him because she wanted to go outside with Elsie and couldn't think of a way do it unless she attached a bit of work to it.
She remembered Robert appearing in the billiard room with Lady Trentham's hot water bottle. How she had hugged it to her chest, feeling as if she'd been given flowers, chocolate, and all those things she'd never dreamt of before, all from the light in his eyes and his easy smile.
She remembers how, when the police said he wasn't interested in the servants, only people with a real connection to the dead man, the final tumbler had clicked for her. Every man and woman in that room knew that Elsie had been having an affair with Sir William. To a man, they said not a word. Because Elsie had been one of their own, and no matter what they might have felt, they would never betray one of their own. Robert had met her eyes, and smiled, and she had realised two things. The first was how much she cared for him. The second was that Robert had murdered a man in cold blood.
She thinks of Mrs Wilson, in her grey dress and white lace collar. Unchanging, like one of the pillars that held up the world. She thinks of how she confessed to murder as she checked the table linen, her grey hair waved and held in place with plain pins.
Most of all, Mary thinks of how Mrs Wilson never asked Mary how a lady's maid knew Robert kept her photograph by his bed.
Mary lets herself remember sometimes how he tasted. Cigarettes and a hint of whisky from the bottle Denton had left in the room when his charade had been discovered. Alone in her attic bedroom, at the top of Countess of Trentham's estate while the November wind howled outside and shook the trees in the park, Mary's fingers trace her bottom lip as she closes her eyes shut and remembers every detail.
The first thing she remembers are his bare feet. He'd taken off his shoes and socks as he lay atop the duvet, reading. She didn't think she'd ever seen a grown man's bare feet before. It had shocked her with how something so simple could seem so intimate.
She remembers the look of surprise, when she'd entered the room. The way his eyes had widened with something like wonder. How loud the click of the door latching behind her had seemed, thought she could scarcely hear it above the hammering of her heart in her ears.
He still wore his striped trousers. His vest had been untucked, his bracers pulled down over his shoulders to hang at either side. The thin cotton was threadbare, loose from so many washings, but still dazzlingly white. Because it was worn next to his skin, it could be shabby, and no-one would ever see it. There had been a light dusting of dark hair above the frayed neck.
She remembers the way the muscles of his arms shifted beneath his skin as he'd risen from the bed. The sound of the match hitting the metal ashtray, the smoke curling lazily in the air.
Her eyes had stung, but not from smoke.
How he'd come closer and closer, his eyes never leaving her face. The languid grace in the way he moved. She should have been terrified. She should have turned tail and run. She'd come there because she needed to know why he'd killed a man. But she'd stepped through that door knowing he had. Or at least believing he had. She should have been afraid of him.
She'd taken two steps back, but that was as far as she moved. Because she hadn't been afraid of him. She'd been apprehensive of his answer, but she still couldn't bring herself to fear Robert. And it wasn't fear that pinned her to the spot. It was something else. It had been as if he'd caught her with his gaze. Like a fish in a net, or a butterfly in a jar.
She remembered the smile, as he'd told her he didn't care who had murdered Sir William. The way his eyes had crinkled at the corners as he assured her he didn't care. A single lock of dark hair had fallen across his brow, making him seem younger.
She remembers how Robert had pulled her close with one arm, cigarette still held between his fingers, like a character in a film. How she'd felt the tip of his tongue briefly against hers before he'd released her. How the ash had fallen to the carpet, because his hand was shaking.
She remembers that fraction of a second after he'd kissed her, before he'd gasped. Before he'd told her he'd been wanting to kiss her from the moment he'd first seen her.
In that space where the second hand travelled, she could have changed everything.
Alone in her bed, she tries to imagine what it would have been like, if things had been different. Imagines what would have happened if she'd kissed him back. Would he have let her go scurrying back down the steps, if she'd opened her mouth to his?
Would he have wanted her then, if she hadn't been the prim little maid, too shy and frightened to do anything but run away?
She might have been innocent, but she wasn't ignorant. Footmen were always dallying with the housemaids, grounds-keepers with kitchen maids. The last thing any girl remained for long, in service, was blind to the ways of men and women. But Mary had never had a follower. She'd never even gone to any of the village dances with the other maids. She'd been shocked by Bertha in the ironing room, not because she'd never seen how it is between men and women. But because she couldn't imagine doing that in the servants' hall where just anyone could walk in.
But alone in his room, the bedding folded neatly on Henry's empty bed, not a soul there to stop them? That she could imagine. She closes her eyes, and imagines his mouth on hers. Can almost feel his hair beneath her fingers. Night after night, she closes her eyes and sees his. And she knows if she were truly a good girl, she would have been glad to see the back of him and never spared him a second thought after Mr Merriman had pulled the motor away from Gosford Park that bright November morning.
Next time, she tells herself in the dark, shocked at how bold she is.
Next time, things will be different.
Robert Parks was not a good man. No-one who truly has murder in his heart can, he thinks, pretend to be good.
But growing up in a Percy House had made him the man he was today. Back then, the children who lived there were called "inmates". Like it was a prison. Or an insane asylum. He never forgot that. Scratch the surface of the well-groomed valet, and just beneath that thin veneer of civilisation was an angry boy who had learnt to use his fists before he'd learnt to use his brain or his tongue.
When he was fourteen, he and Billy and Ned had broken into the warden's office to steal their files. In his had been his birth certificate. All he knew was that he had been born to Jane Parks in the maternity ward of Warkworth House. Where his father's name should have been, it had been neatly typed 'father not known'. There was a photograph in his file, too. A girl—she couldn't have been more than twenty—with hair swept back and wearing a plain, high-necked white frock. Written across the back was Jane, '96 in a spidery hand.
The matron had told him his mother had died of drink. As a boy, he'd spun that horrible truth into something better. Something he could live with. Robert's mother Jane had died of a broken heart. He had told himself that for so long, he actually believed it.
He'd kept her photo in its cheap cardboard frame, tucked between the pages of a copy of a Dumas novel. When he got his first job as a hallboy at Shugborough House, in Staffordshire, he'd slept with it under his pillow. He'd never left London in his life, but there were jobs going because of the war. The blue sky had amazed him. The work was hard, but the best thing about it was it put him in a position to hear all of the gossip in the servants' hall. Because he served the Pugs' Parlour, he would hear not just the dinner conversations of the butler, housekeeper, his lordship's valet and her ladyship's maid, head housemaid and footmen—but visiting servants.
While carrying coal through the kitchens during a shooting week-end, he heard a visiting valet tell tales of how his employer had four factories outside London—two in Isleworth, and two in Twickenham. The valet was new to his service, having been previous a footman in Lord Carton's household. But one of Carton's daughters had married the man for his money, and she was doing her best to whip him into fine enough shape to be presentable at state functions.
A gangly boy of fifteen, having just had his first real growth spurt, Robert then learnt that the under-housemaids were where you went for the real stories. Ella, seventeen and with an ample bosom, shared more than just her gossip with him. But it was from Ella he first learnt that as a young man Mr McCordle had met the Countess, Lady Coke at one of the Maharajah's famed shooting parties. In hushed whispers, she'd told him how Mr McCordle had been more than just the owner of the factory Robert's mother had worked in, before she died. He had got up to all sorts of trouble. But no-one ever caused a stink, because he was richer than God. The only reason he wasn't off in France was because he'd greased all the right palms, and those factories were full of girls whose fathers, husbands, brothers and sons were off fighting the Huns.
After the Earl was killed in a shooting accident, Robert began looking for a place as a footman in town. He was taller than most young men his age, and this gave him an advantage. Conscription meant he could have his pick of places, though he always had an eye towards France. What the war began, the Spanish Flu finished. As a tall, strong, courteous, and pleasing to look at young man, he had his pick of work from almost anywhere in the country due to a crippling shortage of male servants.
By the time Robert was 20, he was a second footman, and had an idea about life in service, and an idea about his life. Because as he travelled from household to household, what he learnt he was best at was keeping himself to himself, doing his job as best he could, and listening. And it was by keeping his eyes and ears open in the servants' hall and when he served at table that he learnt the only way he could get to the man he suspected was his father and his mother's murderer was to become a valet. Valets shadowed their masters, had access to them at all hours, and got close enough to them to slip a knife between their ribs.
That was what he dreamt about, in his draughty room he shared with the first footman at the top of the house. Of seeing McCordle's eyes widen in shock. How the blood would run down the handle of the blade as he would slump towards him. The gruesome image brought him comfort. He knew he was sick. Knew it in the pit of his stomach as he lay on his side, listening to the sounds of London outside the tiny window. But by the time he took his first position as valet, it began changing from idle fantasy to the stirrings of a plan.
He never stayed in a position more than two years. He never gave cause for dismissal. He never dallied with his master's wives or daughters. He went to the pictures now and then with housemaids, and was hardly a monk. But on the whole, he formed no lasting attachments. He was well-known, and if not precisely liked, then at least respected. He was always given a good reference, and only once was he ever spoken with for his behaviour.
He'd been serving at one of her ladyship's grand parties, and overheard one of her guests ask if she could recommend a staffing agency for him, as his household was in need of an in-between maid. Except he hadn't called her a tweenie—he'd actually called her a skivvy, which was bad enough. But when her ladyship asked if he was looking for any type of girl in particular, the man had replied "Oh, any little slut will do."
Only the butler's hand on his arm had stopped Robert from scalding the man with the hot sauce he'd been serving.
He had been immediately taken outside, where he explained what he had overheard tersely and plainly, unable to fully hide his disgust and fury. To his credit, the butler had blanched, and then fetched him a glass of port. He was made to sit in the butler's pantry to drink it and calm down, and told not to return to table until he felt he could—and then only if he felt he could. It was a kindness Robert never forgot. But it also served as a reminder of how some men saw the world, and all the money and prestige couldn't disguise their black hearts. Any remorse he'd ever felt at demonising his father vanished, to be replaced with firm resolve.
He thinks he's God Almighty, he'd told Mary when she asked him what Lord Stockbridge was like. They all do, he'd said as much about McCordle as Stockbridge, and by extension every man in the upper classes. And he believed it, because nothing in his life had shown him any different.
Slowly, he began working his way closer to his goal. He tried staffing agencies, but it became too difficult to try and explain why he wanted this position over that position based not on rises in pay, but proximity to Sir William McCordle, newly made Baronet. Lucky for him, servants halls had a healthy trade in gossip. When McCordle's brother-in-law Lord Stockbridge's valet died, Robert saw it as his opportunity.
When he had first set foot in Gosford Park, his mind had been full of the plan. He'd spent the first day doing nothing but learning the layout of the house, and Sir William's routine. He noted who stayed late in the drawing room playing cards, who among the footmen was most likely to lose or misplace any of the silver. Who would mark him, if he walked into a room, and who would dismiss him, too busy with their own work. But all the while, he was preoccupied with thoughts of Lady Trentham's maid.
He remembers how Friday afternoon, as Mrs Wilson was telling him where he'd be billeted, behind the head housemaid had stood a slip of a girl in a grey cloche hat and wet wool coat. Her brown hair was damp, and clung to her cheeks. He'd assumed she was an under-housemaid, at first. She seemed so young, and so unlike the lady's maids he knew, who were generally a bit full of themselves. She'd blushed as she'd admitted she had no experience, and he'd been completely charmed.
"These are your stairs here," Elsie had said, effectively dismissing him. Mary had stood two steps behind her, dark eyes following him until he disappeared around a corner. He didn't see her again until they were in the ironing room, pressing their masters' clothes for the night. Her hair was pulled back from her face with two hairpins, and she wore a plain black frock. She was slim, and lovely, if not conventionally pretty. He'd asked her name. When she said in all earnestness while she was at there, her name was Trentham, he couldn't hold back a laugh.
That night, he'd stolen the silver carving knife and hidden it in the fire bucket at the foot of the servants stairs closest to the library. He knew from George using the fire buckets to hide his illicit fag ends that no-one ever checked them.
It was nearly midnight by the time he started back up to his room. He heard the scuffle and Mary's unmistakable voice raised in alarm, and quickened his step. As he'd opened the door she'd been directly in front of him, eyes bright with tears, and two splotches of colour high on her cheeks. Denton was smoothing down his waistcoat, and his blond hair was mussed. She'd started to move past him, and Robert had put out a hand to touch her arm, as he told her to wait.
He remembered the warmth of her skin where his thumb brushed her wrist, below the cuff.
He remembered how she had been shaking, refusing to meet his eyes. He remembered how Denton's eyes had followed him, daring him to make an accusation. Only the thought of the knife buried beneath the sand in the fire bucket kept him from smashing Denton's face in with his fists.
"You sound as if you don't like him," Mary had said when he told her how he couldn't understand why Elsie would let a man like William McCordle touch her.
"You'd be surprised."
"Alright. Surprise me." Her eyes had challenged him.
When the moment came, he hadn't hesitated. He'd plunged the silver knife into his father's heart.
Unlike his vivid imaginings, there had been no blood. That should have warned him. But he had been so caught up in the moment, the culmination of his life's work, he hadn't noticed. He'd reached down, pulling off one green baize glove, and felt Sir William's throat for a pulse. Satisfied there was none, he'd calmly walked back to the kitchens. The muddy shoes went back outside the kitchen door where they belonged. Music still poured from the drawing room, and hall boys and scullery maids littered the main stairs, eyes closed in rapture as they'd listened to the piano drifting down from above. Fighting the urge to whistle, he busied himself with filling two hot water bottles with boiling water from the huge kettle that hung over the fire in the kitchen, to cover his absence. One for Lord Stockbridge, one for Lady Trentham. They had embroidered covers, as if their delicate peer's skin was too fine to touch with mortal things.
It wasn't until he overheard one of the kitchen maids in the garden joking about Sir William being murdered twice that he'd realised he'd killed a dead man.
He should have felt cheated of his revenge. Instead, he found only a profound sense of peace that the deed was done. The rest of the house—above and belowstairs—had been tense, worried, guarding their own secrets. But for the first time in his life, Robert felt free. When Inspector Thompson had announced they would not be interviewing the servants, he'd met Mary's eyes across the table with a genuine smile. Because while he had always had something he believed worth killing and dying for, for the first time, he felt he had something to live for.
He'd never imagine a future beyond his father's death. An expanse of possibility stretched out before him now, and somehow, all he could think of was her.
Back in London, the quarrelling Lord and Lady Stockbridge no longer at each other's throats, Robert had settled back into his daily routine. But in the wee hours of the night, as he slipped outside to have a cigarette and watch the clouds passing over the face of the moon, he thinks of her.
He remembers the timid knock at his door. How, when he had looked up from his book and saw her, it had felt as if the universe had cracked in half. Everything had shifted, and nothing felt the same. In her night-dress with her flannel dressing-gown tied loosely around her waist, he ought not to have seen her as anything but a child.
He'd dropped the novel he'd been reading to the bed, lit a cigarette to give himself something to do with his hands. He dropped the match looked at her from over his shoulder—from her bobbed hair to her bare feet stuck in her black shoes without socks. And in that moment, he knew he was no better than Henry Denton, because more than anything, he wanted to feel her beneath him on the narrow bed.
Instead, he tells her the truth. He's never told a living soul, but she's standing there with tears in her brown eyes, and he hands her the photograph. The truth was a drug, making him light-headed. The desire to kiss her burned in his throat like unshed tears. She's looked up at him with fear and hope and he wanted so desperately to touch her.
So he did.
He remembered how she had looked up at him, as they parted. Her hand had hovered near his chest, but never touched him. In that moment, he could have changed everything. He could have kissed her again. Instead, he'd let her go.
"I've been wanting to do that ever since I first set eyes on you."
He'd wanted to be gentle. To woo her. But in that moment, he was no better than his father. He taken what he wanted. And she'd run from him. He'd started at the door, feeling lost and alone in a way he hadn't since he'd been a boy.
Next time, he whispers to the cold winter air.
Next time, things will be different.