The Black Armoire
There was nothing Thomas liked more on a cold autumn morning than a cigarette in the yard. He would stand with his back against the wall and blow smoke into the air, his attention wandering from the movement in the stables to the constant parade of maids traipsing in and out of the kitchen. In their somber black uniforms they reminded him of sparrows casting him disapproving glances. Most of them hated him but Daisy was the exception, watching him with adoring eyes and never knowing that her attempts to please him were in vain, for he was not inclined in that direction. He wouldn't have encouraged it except that it was apparent William fancied her and it alleviated his constant boredom to cause trouble. Thomas couldn't get away with much, but what little he did granted him great pleasure and amusement… and there was precious little to be had in this house.
It helped that Daisy was an unpardonable dunce, easy to manipulate and even easier to confound; she had a look about her at times as she tried to work things out in her head that made it apparent she had no idea what he meant. Not that she got much empathy for it from Mrs. Patmore. The old woman was quick with her tongue and Daisy's first few weeks had been spent crying in the back hall when she thought no one was looking. It was in her best interest that she had a certain amount of fear for the cook, but she had taken the chastising more to heart than the others. Anna had done her best to comfort her, and even the restrained Mrs. Hughes had given her a kind word or two, but the girl had to grow up and learn the world was a nasty place sooner or later. And as far as Thomas was concerned, it might as well be sooner.
The previous evening had seen more excitement than was customary for the servants' quarters, for Lady Cora had come downstairs to inform them that she had seen an armoire in the east wing that liked and asked that it be moved to her sitting room. The announcement had left most of the servants in shock, for no one could remember the last time anything had been moved. The Countess had kept it all as her mother-in-law had kept it and apart from the odd end table here and there, nothing had changed in a hundred years other than the installation of the electric lights and a telephone. Thomas and William were to see to it that very morning and neither of them looked forward to it, although William would never say a word. He bore unpleasantness in silence, but that was not Thomas' manner and as he considered the tedious task ahead of him, he scowled.
"As if we haven't got anything better to do," he complained, and flicked his cigarette into the courtyard. It landed in a puddle as he returned to the house, shaking off the cold. Having watched for him out the window for the better part of a quarter hour, Daisy smiled at him when he came in but he was too irritated to look at her as he crossed the room. Her expression revealed disappointment and Mrs. Patmore shook her head, knowing it was useless to give the girl any more hints that Thomas would never like her in that way. She would simply have to let the girl find out the truth on her own, and hope Thomas did not hurt her too much in the meantime. "Daisy!" she snapped and the girl returned to her task of gathering up her broom and dustbin. Since the east wing was never used, there was bound to be some cleaning to do and with Anna and Gwen busy upstairs, the task fell to her.
Carson led the way with Daisy bringing up the rear, nearly tripping over her dust bucket as she craned her neck to look around her. It was rare she was above stairs and as he took them into the east wing, a touch of awe surfaced in her voice. "I haven't ever been in this part of the house before!"
"Nor are you likely to be again," said the butler with a note of finality. It was not unpleasant, merely the truth. Her eye caught William's as he glanced at her and she flushed, ducking her head as she remembered that Mrs. Hughes had told her to be "seen and not heard" whenever she was above stairs. It was a hard thing to remember at the best of times but she was quiet as they traipsed along the hall and entered a dark room with most of the furniture covered in sheets. Carson opened the draperies and light flooded into the space, abating the gloom and permitting them to see the armoire in question. Formed from a rich, dark wood and beautifully carved, it was striking against the faded paper in the background.
Thomas sighed. How predictable of her to want that particular piece of furniture, the heaviest, oldest, biggest armoire in the house, with no concern for the backs of the men who would have to move it. In a week she would no doubt decide she didn't care for it after all and they would have to repeat the process. His face revealing none of his annoyance, although it was plainly expressed in his mannerisms as he approached, Thomas pulled one end away from the wall. It was as heavy as it looked and would be a bear to haul to the other end of the house. Even though he knew saying anything would earn him disapproval he muttered, "Seems this was a good enough spot for it when the Countess was in residence, I don't see why it's not good enough now."
For once the butler agreed with him but would never give him the satisfaction of knowing. In his usual deep and disapproving manner he said sharply, "Never mind that, Thomas, and do what you're told."
Sharing a meaningful glance with William, who shared his despair, Thomas slid out the armoire further from the wall to reveal a nest of dust bunnies and cobwebs.
Daisy was drawn to the enormous fireplace, which took up half of one wall and was covered in scrollwork. The mirror above it was tarnished but still cast a reflection and her skin tingled as she stared at it. She had a feeling that something bad had happened in this room. Her mother had once said she had keen instincts, but she had not paid them much mind until now. In spite of the grunting of the footmen and Carson warning them to be careful not to scratch the floor, she could hear a faint sound up the chimney but as she peered into it, she could see nothing but a pinprick of light far above. "Mr. Carson," she asked timidly, "whose room was this?"
"I don't see how that is any of your concern," he answered, and watched as the armoire reached the carpet.
Knowing this was getting them nowhere, Thomas asked, "Can't we just pull it along on the carpet, Mr. Carson?"
"I should say not!" Carson was indignant at the mere thought of it.
The sounds continued. Daisy stared at the hearth, finding it more unnerving the longer she looked at it.
"You don't know how heavy it is… sir."
"That doesn't matter! We're to move it and move it we shall, without compromising the dignity of the house!"
Soot filtered down the chimney and Daisy felt a shiver pass over her in spite of the warmth of the sunlight.
"I'd be more than willing to sacrifice the dignity of the house if it meant not breaking my back, Mr. Carson."
From the shadow of the armoire, William did not attempt to include his opinion. He had never particularly cared for Thomas but on this occasion had to admit he was not looking forward to moving the beast across the main hall and up a flight of stairs. His attention turned to Daisy and he saw unease build in her until she turned and said, "Maybe we oughtn't to move it, Mr. Carson."
Three faces stared at her and she suddenly felt very small. Carson rarely had much to do with her and as such had more compassion than most, since he was rarely around when she dropped or broke anything. Her earnest and fearful expression gave him pause and trying to keep irritation out of his voice, he asked, "And why is that, Daisy?"
She hesitated. All her senses were tingling, from the tip of her toes to the top of her head. Daisy did not like this room and wondered how none of them felt it. She did not know what it was but had the feeling a bad memory was among them, watching them, slightly angered by the disturbance. Her voice was small but insistent as she said, "It belongs here. It wouldn't be right to move it."
"So you think we might waken a ghost, is that it?" Thomas sneered at her and she wavered as she looked at him.
Carson was not in the mood for foolishness. One of his dark brows arched heavenward and in a humorless tone he asked, "Have you been reading those dreadful magazines again?"
"Which magazines would those be, Mr. Carson?" she asked softly, thinking of the one she had in her room. It had been stuffed under her mattress that very morning, though she'd been afraid to turn her back on it when she had come downstairs.
The brow lowered and he gave her a look. "You know which ones I mean."
Never mind that Thomas was the one giving them to her, or that Anna snitched them when Daisy was done and the maids sat up at night reading them until they were too scared to blow out the candle, or that Mrs. Hughes had confiscated the last lot and put them in the stove. Morbid, sordid stories of ghosts and vampires were popular and wide-eyed Daisy was easily influenced by them, which was why Carson suspected Thomas had started leaving them around in the first place. Daisy squirmed under his gaze and knowing he was not about to get an answer out of her, Carson said, "I assure you, there is no wandering spirit locked in this room that might disapprove of an item of furniture being moved from one place to the next. This is Downton! No ghost would dare set foot in it!"
And that was when the fireplace exploded.
Debris rained down, soot pouring out and causing a great cloud of smoke. It was too much for Daisy, who shrieked, dropped her broom and dustpan, and bolted; even encountering Mrs. Hughes coming up the corridor did not slow her down. The footmen stumbled out into the hall coughing violently and Carson made his way across the room to open a window, the rush of cold air a welcome relief from the dead cinders. Mrs. Hughes quickened her pace and gasped when she rounded the doorway and saw the mess. The cloud was settling around them, leaving a fresh layer of soot on everything. Her mouth opened but no sound came out and Carson asked, "When was the last time we had the chimneys on this side of the house properly cleaned?"
As he made his way across the room, Mrs. Hughes shook her head. "Not for a few years, but it shouldn't have been as bad as this! Where is Daisy off to?"
"The kitchens; she's convinced the place is haunted," Thomas answered.
Mrs. Hughes gave him a withering look. "She wouldn't think that if you hadn't started it."
"I can't help leaving things around, now can I? It was she who nicked it from me first."
Brushing off his coat, Thomas turned his back on her and Mrs. Hughes put her annoyance with him aside. "Let the maids attend to it. Lady Grantham will have to wait for her armoire, though it won't please her. And try not to track it all through the house," she added as the footmen started off. Thomas said nothing but sent her a glance that revealed his thoughts as she returned her attention to Carson. She had never seen him looking worse. He was rarely in such a state and it was obvious he deeply resented her seeing him in one. Though she fought to keep her amusement out of her countenance, it crept through and he drew himself up with a certain amount of wounded pride. Mustering as much dignity as he could under the circumstances, Carson went on his way.
Entering the room in his absence, Mrs. Hughes opened several more windows and went to the hearth, where she found the remains of a nest that had fallen down the chimney. Convinced there was nothing unusual about it, she went downstairs to the main hall. It was customary for such things to be reported to the lady of the house, for since her arrival she had informed the help that she was to be kept appraised of even that which did not directly concern her. Mrs. Hughes had been present when Cora had first set foot in Downton, an eager bride faced with a formidable and disapproving mother in law and a great old country estate that needed her money as much as it needed her husband's considerable influence. While it had taken them awhile to become accustomed to her, Cora had swiftly won over the housekeeper merely by means of empathy, for she had been outnumbered and in need of allies.
The women were gathered in the drawing room and Lady Grantham was in attendance, having driven up from town to see her son and continue to pursue the matter of the inheritance. It never did any good but she and Cora were united in their determination that the money should not go to Matthew no matter how fond they were of him. It was not the topic of conversation when Mrs. Hughes entered and she leaned down to inform Cora of recent events as Sybil and Edith continued to argue about the state of the grounds. Mary was staring out at her father and Matthew as they walked the green, the dog with them. The autumn light made his hair blonder than usual and she felt a strange attraction to him that she almost found repugnant. Everyone thought it would be lovely if she and he were married; that way the estate and the inheritance would still come to her as the rightful heir. She had fought it from their first meeting. Mary did not much care to be told what to do and it pained her that she was forced to admit he was not the sea monster she had first taken him for. Rather annoyed with the nature of her thoughts, she turned her head as the housekeeper went out and asked, "What was that about?"
"It seems one of the kitchen maids has a vivid imagination. I asked Carson to see to it that an armoire was moved from the east wing and the poor girl was frightened when a nest fell down the chimney and startled them all. It caused quite a fuss and now the room will have to be cleaned before they can move it." Cora accepted the cup of tea Anna offered to her and cast her blue eyes in the direction of the lawn. "Robert is fond of Isis, isn't he? I wonder that the poor creature isn't getting fat with all the food he is given."
The diversion did not work, for all her mother in law had heard was what struck her with the most horror. In her hand was a delicate Victorian teacup and while she took care not to set it down too sharply on the saucer, it still drew their attention as she said, "Excuse me, Cora, dear, but did you just say you are moving a piece of furniture?"
Sybil looked from one to the other knowing an argument was about to start and sat slightly back in her chair. Having experienced the burning disapproval of the woman many times in the past, Cora answered with trepidation "I found a wonderful armoire in the east wing yesterday and wanted it placed in my sitting room. I do not see any reason why it should remain where no one can ever see it."
"I do, if that's where it belongs!" snorted Violet. "What's wrong with the armoire in your sitting room now?"
Her pleasant expression wavering, Cora answered, "Nothing, but I should like a change."
"You should like a change? How very American of you," said the older woman; "I suppose it has not occurred to you that Carson and the footman will be forced to move the armoire from one end of the house to the other? Dear me, it does seem like such an aimless task."
Cora sat down her teacup and crossed her hands in her lap. "It is not aimless since my sitting room is where I want it. Seeing as I am the Lady of the House, I do not see why I should not have my furniture where I would like it, since without my money there would be no Downton at all."
Before the argument could escalate further, for she sensed her sputtering grandmother was about to explode, Edith asked, "Was that what all the fuss was about upstairs? As I was coming down I met one of the kitchen girls on the stairs running as if the very devil were on her heels… or possibly Mrs. Hughes."
In spite of herself, Sybil giggled and their grandmother sent them both a warning look. "Mrs. Hughes is one of the finest housekeepers we have ever had at Downton, and it would do you well to remember it."
"She was rather good at frightening us out of the kitchen when we were children," remarked Mary. "But what did she mean about the maid, did she think the room was haunted?"
Resting her hand on her silver walking stick, Violet snorted, "What an idea, Downton, haunted?" She chuckled.
"I wish it were," said Sybil with enthusiasm. "I should like that, to live in a haunted house."
"Well, I shouldn't!" Edith stared at her.
Sunlight drifted in between them, taking on a different hue as clouds crept in from the east. Her blue eyes luminous with excitement, Sybil said, "I should think this would be a proper house for haunting! Has no one ever died here? Other than Mr. Pamuk, I mean, and if he were going to haunt anyone, it should be Mary."
Behind them Anna very nearly dropped the sugar tongs and Cora almost choked on her tea. Though caught off guard, Mary recovered rapidly and with a smile said, "If he is haunting me, I haven't seen him. But there have been others die in this house, haven't there?" She got up and walked her cup back to the tray, exchanging a meaningful glance with Anna as conversation resumed in the background.
"Any old house is bound to have had its fair share of tragedies but there have never been ghosts at Downton."
Reaching the window, Mary stared out at the coming storm as memories of Pamuk returned, his death and the horror at having it happen in her room. But the mention of ghosts had brought another memory to mind, so old it difficult for her to sort out. She clearly remembered standing on the landing of the servant staircase and trying to see down at the foot of it, but Mrs. Hughes had quickly intervened. It was unusual for the woman to be upset, but on that occasion there had been a tremor in her voice as she had sent Mary away.
In the distance, she heard Sybil say, "That settles it then. When I die, I will have to haunt Downton!"
Mary came around to find Anna looking at her curiously. Such a different array of expressions had come over her face that Anna was unnerved by them. Quietly, she asked, "Are you all right, my lady?"
She remembered that it had been a scream that had drawn her to the stairs and nodded.
The far door opened and the men joined them, rosy from their walk. Isis lay at their feet and Matthew sat in the chair nearest her as she returned to the divan, Mary exchanging a smile with him before she looked away again, smoothing down her skirt and trying to beat her happiness into submission. She would not love Matthew, because it was what all of them wanted and she had never given anyone what they wanted. Conversation resumed as Lord Grantham inquired what they had been speaking of and remarked on the current state of affairs. Having gathered up the tea service, Anna carried it downstairs, passing Bates in the hall. She had liked him from the start but of late their interactions had changed, becoming more comfortable even though neither of them acknowledged it. He would arrange to sit near her when she was sewing and she knew it was because he liked her.
Warmth crept through her cheeks as she went on, repressing the urge to turn and glance back at him. Her arrival below stairs was met with Mrs. Hughes reminding Daisy that going upstairs was a privilege and she was not to behave foolishly again. Passing them and delivering the tray to the sideboard in the kitchen Anna shook her head and Gwen made a face, both of them glad not to be on the receiving end of the chastisement.
Hanging her head, Daisy said, "Yes, Mrs. Hughes, it won't happen again."
Knowing there was more to that sentence than had been said, Mrs. Hughes said, "But…?"
"But I felt it. There was someone in that room with us, and it weren't Thomas or William!"
"It was a raven up the chimney. It dislodged a nest and it fell, that is all."
Daisy was adamant. "Begging your pardon, but it wasn't! I know it wasn't!"
Feeling the beginnings of a headache coming on, Mrs. Hughes repressed a sigh. "Daisy, you are not to go stampeding through the house again, ever. Is that understood?"
"Yes, Ma'am," answered the kitchen maid in a tiny voice.
Branson had been peering around the doorway and now pulled his head back into the room, settling into his chair. As Gwen entered in search of her sewing box, he said, "In Ireland no one would think much of it. We are more than content to believe in ghosts and goblins there. I guess the English are too proper for it, eh?"
"You say that as if you look down on us for it."
He shrugged. "Your lot looks down on us."
Black skirts brought Mrs. Hughes to the door. "Gwen, make a cup of tea and take it to my office, please."
At her acknowledgment, the housekeeper followed the winding stairs to the attics, gloom closing in around her as she went to the far end and the room Daisy shared with the other kitchen maids. It was small and bare but the corner Daisy occupied was discernable by the sketches and clippings pinned to the wall. Barely noticing them, Mrs. Hughes surveyed the bed and small bureau with a discerning eye and felt beneath the mattress. It did not take her long to find the magazine shoved in as far as the girl could reach. They sold for a few cents each in the village store and beneath the lurid cover were equally sordid tales of crimes and kidnappings intended to frighten naïve girls. This one promised "extraordinary tales of woe and bloodshed," and she carried it downstairs and opened the stove, only to pause. Though not one to indulge in fanciful stories, Mrs. Hughes was curious just what it was about the publication that the maids found so enticing.
It was about this time that Mr. Carson resurfaced, having changed into fresh attire.
"Lady Grantham is staying for dinner," said Anna as she passed and he nodded.
The maids were dispatched to clean up the mess and Mrs. Hughes insisted Daisy go along to tidy the hearth as well as face her fears. When she entered, Anna could understand why the room had given the girl unease, as the sheet-covered furniture lent itself to images of ghosts. But were it not for their presence the job would have been more difficult and she was grateful for them as she and Gwen pulled them down carefully. It would leave only the bed, carpet, and floorboards to be cleaned. The windows were still open and the air had cleared, leaving the space colder than usual. The sheets would have be laundered and put up again, protecting the furniture from the sunlight.
Daisy hovered on the threshold, shifting from one foot to the other until Anna told her not to be idle; reluctantly, she tiptoed to the hearth and began sweeping the debris into the dustbin. When the silence became unbearable, Gwen asked, "What happened to you in here, Daisy?"
"I don't know. I just sort of felt that something bad had happened in here, no matter what Mr. Carson says." Daisy set her mouth in a grim line and continued to brush the hearth, ignorant of the look the maids exchanged behind her back.
It did not take long to gather the sheets and carry them away but rolling up the carpet proved more difficult. Carson had sent Thomas and William along and with their help they carried it outside and hung it over the branch of a nearby tree. Carpet beating was one of Anna's least-favorite tasks but on this occasion it was almost calming, the sound of the beaters whistling through the sharp cold air as Gwen assisted her. Tuffs of black arose and drifted away, the skies becoming murky as a storm moved in. It would be raining in a few hours.
Bearing the carpet back indoors and unfurling it in its proper place, Thomas and William then faced the task of moving the armoire. It was early afternoon and the windows were shut by Anna moments before large drops of rain hit them, spattering ominously against the glass.
"I know you don't fancy the idea of dragging the carpet, Mr. Carson," said Thomas, "but I don't see how we've got much choice. We can wrestle it down the hall and risk scratching the floor, what with it being so heavy, or we can put it on the carpet and slide it in half the time, with only a flight of stairs in-between."
Normally Carson would have said no but under the circumstances and as fed up as he was with the situation, he conceded with the provision that nothing get broken in the midst of this endeavor. Maneuvering the heavy piece of furniture onto the carpet proved a tedious business but when certain it would not tip over, Thomas and William grasped it and pulled. It inched forward, the armoire rocking slightly with the momentum. Dragging it out into the hall proved difficult, as the carpet was too cumbersome to accommodate them properly. After nearly crushing his fingers and bashing his shoulder into the wall, Thomas complained, "I don't see why we don't have a proper dolly."
In no better humor than the footman was, Carson barked, "For the simple reason that we have never needed one! Their lot isn't accustomed to buying or moving furniture!"
Once in the hall it went easier and there was a fair stretch where there was not much complaining. Mary leaned against the banister to watch, her fingers entwined in the strand of pearls around her neck. Her amusement was apparent as Carson warned them to watch the oil painting… and the hall table… and the tapestries. Staring down at them from above, she did not move until Edith came up behind her and with mild interest asked, "What's this?"
"This is a perfect example of Mother being American," answered Mary, and left her there.
In spite of not having ventured into the servants' quarters since the duke had brought her there, the memory of the incident on the stairs led her to the door into the attics. She remembered it well from childhood when she had been fascinated by the goings-on of the lower class. The kitchens had been a constant bustle of activity, Mrs. Patmore giving her whatever she happened to have fixed off the sideboard. Her fingers full of cookies or apple tarts Mary had crept into a corner out of sight and listened in on the conversation of the housemaids, the comforting tones of Carson bringing a sense of security and happiness. Echoes of the past lingered in the present as she pushed open the door and stepped into the gloomy space. It was no different from how she remembered it, just as bare and dismal as it had ever been, but she heard contented voices flowing up from downstairs. She would never intrude on them or invade their privacy again, but she wanted to remember and approached the stairs tentatively, trying to recall that day. It had been raining and shadows had lurked in the upper rooms. She could remember the scream and the sight of fingertips clutching at the wall as the young woman had fallen out of sight.
Mary touched the wall, a shudder passing over her. It was eerie to stand there and search the past, remembering Mrs. Hughes and her intervention, her swiftness in making certain she saw nothing to upset her. It was the one time the housekeeper had been impatient with her, dragging her down the hall away from the concerned voices and ejecting her unceremoniously from the servants' quarters. Sensing she was no longer alone, her hand fell and she looked around to find the woman behind her. Mrs. Hughes had seen the look on her face and had no intention of disturbing her, remaining in the shadows until she was acknowledged. Feeling as if she had been caught, Mary said, "There you are. I was wondering if you might have the maids make up the green room. Evelyn never intends to stay but I rather think he will."
Shadows crept around them and the sound of the rain on the roof was comforting. Mrs. Hughes sensed this was not her reason for being there but did not question it. "Certainly, will that be all?"
"Yes." Mary indicated her desire to leave and the housekeeper moved out of her way, watching her retreat. Her eyes darkened with concern and she descended into the kitchen.