War at heart.
The world was at war, or so they said. The panic that rose, the men that were lost, the women whose hearts would never be the same. The world was at war, they said, but all I kept remembering was the war, the war at home, the war in my heart.
Travelling from New Orleans all the way to London, England seemed impossible to me, and yet as I stood in the middle of a bustling Trafalgar Square I wondered how I had somehow made it in one piece.
I came to England in the brisk Fall of 1917, or as they put it, the Autumn. I was twenty-three years old, and I held forty pounds to my name, a name that wasn't truly mine either. Susannah Compton was my name. I say was, because I no longer wished to be my husband's wife. No longer, because he had driven his fist through my face for the last time, he'd slapped me for the last time; he'd taken out his own inadequacy on me, for the last time. But under law it was impossible to make my freedom a reality. So, I ran.
I came to England under my maternal Grandmother's married name – Stackhouse. I came as Sookie, her old nickname for me, and I came as a widow. Nothing about it was easy of course, but I knew it had to be done, or I would not have survived another night if he were to lose control once more. I used my married documentation until I finally arrived in England, and dumped them as soon as I set foot on land. I came from a successful enough family. My father was a merchant by trade, who married my mother, a baker by trade. Once merged, they created a successful store and small bakery together, running it together before their untimely death when I was just a child. My Grandmother on my mother's side was a resilient woman who had worked with them since the businesses began, and she wished to keep the trade alive for my brother to one day inherit, and of course to create a decent enough dowry for me to marry well. I thought I had found my perfect match in William Compton. At eighteen I was sheltered and as green as the grass on the hills, but I had hoped he was the gentleman he was perceived to be.
He was not.
His money, his wealth, was nothing but a barefaced lie and his gentle manner as false as his delusions of grandeur. It was not until we were married a little over a year that it all fell apart, and my stake in the business that he now owned was all we had to live on. He pushed the business, always wanting more money and for a while it worked. We lived a relatively comfortable life in New Orleans society, but from the inside looking out it was still a lie. His violent manner scared me, and as we tried for children and were not successful his rage only worsened. It was always 'my' fault, I was the one 'doing something' to make these babies die. I was the one that was going against God and forbidding us from having the family that he so deserved. Looking back on it now, losing those babies was God's way of giving me an out. I could have never left him with my babies, and I would have never left them with him either. The last night he hit me so hard I lost time, waking up in the dawn alone and in pain, and that was it. The strength I needed I found; the strength to empty the family safe, and leave with just the clothes on my back. Was I scared? I was petrified. But, I knew if I didn't leave using the front door, I'd be leaving in a box the next time it happened. And there would always be a next time.
Life for a woman with no real standing, no documents, and no husband wasn't a pleasant one, not in America, and certainly not in Britain. My money only went so far, and I knew I needed a job. At first I worked odd jobs whilst renting a room above a bar, but those jobs didn't fit. There was always a boss that thought he could touch me, or scare me, and the pay was never what it was for the others either. I had no papers at first, so I didn't exist. Why you would need to fairly pay someone who didn't exist, they'd say. That's when I heard from one of the girls about this man who could get you papers and make you into a whole new person. I was thrilled, of course, but I knew it wouldn't come cheap, and I was right. It swallowed up a great deal of my savings, but a little more than six months after I arrived in England I finally had a name again. This time I was Sookie Stackhouse, orphan, widow, and still alone in the world. But at least I was still in the world, I would muse, as I heard news of more casualties of the War, more deaths, more loss. I was still alive, and I was for the first time, standing on my own two feet – even if I wobbled a bit every now and then - I was still doing it. And it was that very attitude that led me to him, and into a life I would have never expected.
I held up two jobs a week for the first six months or so, first an assistant at a bakery in the city, before the bakery was raided and destroyed, forcing the owner to close his business, which he'd had since his father was a boy, to then a Lady's maid, three days a week. It didn't work out though, since I was only covering for her regular maid who'd been sick. Once she'd recovered I was of no use, and thus without either of my jobs and a rapidly dwindling purse. That's when I heard through one of the women in the kitchen of the Lady Rothford, an agency for young women to be hired out to large estates across the country, all kinds of jobs too! I wrote and arranged an appointment with one of the women there, to discuss what she called my 'criteria' and how I'd be put to work if I was deemed 'desirable.' Her name was Arlene Atherton and she wasn't in the slighted bit pleasant.
"Um, Sookie Stackhouse…"
She looked up from her piece of paper behind her dark mahogany desk; her glasses perched on her nose, her flaming red hair piled on top of her head.
"Um? Are you unsure of your name, girl? What sort of name is … Sookie?"
"Just my name," I defended with a shrug.
"Right, you're an American, of course you have an odd name," she said, shaking her head and writing.
I was insulted, but I kept my mouth shut, remembering that my lease on the room was coming to an end in a few days, and I needed a life line.
"Can you read?"
"Yes, Ma'am. And write, proficiently. I've also served as a ladies maid for a time here, and back home I helped run a small, but prosperous family business."
"Family business? What made you leave it then?"
I didn't see how that had any effect on my ability to work, so I simply kept silent, and she sighed, clearly done with me already.
I handed those over, just a letter or two from my former employers saying that I did what I was hired to do, and that I did it well.
"New Orleans, you say you're from?"
"Yes Ma'am… it is a lot warmer there right now than it is here, that's for sure," I laughed, trying in vain to make a joke, to lighten the mood. But if I'd learned anything in my time here it was that most English people just didn't get my sense of humour. I began to question if they removed that from English babies when they were born, and from the look on Arlene's face, I might have been right.
"Yes, I knew an American woman once, she did a lot of complaining about the cold, it was ever so tiring."
"She herself was tiring, and I once told her that if she didn't like the climate of my country, that she was free to hop, skip, and jump back to her precious New York."
"And did she?" I asked with a smile, but she remained sour.
"Yes. She did. With my husband."
Oh … Dear.
"Since you don't like the cold Miss Stackhouse, please let me try and find you a placement that would be more…agreeable to you."
I smiled, so happy that I had maybe made a friend or at least an acquaintance in Arlene, she was doing a nice thing for me, or so I thought. So, I smiled big and wide, and I thanked her.
Two days later I was assigned my position, and I realized that Arlene was as phony as the tint in her hair; she'd assigned me to Scotland, and not just anywhere in Scotland, somewhere called 'The Highlands,' and that did not sound agreeable, at all.
Days of travelling, by train, and by carriage and by train again and again left me feeling out of sorts. While the gentle moments of the train should have made me feel at ease, as it has always done, this time instead it simply filled me with a dreading feeling. One I wasn't used to, uncertainty and nervousness did not mixed well within me.
It was mid-April and it was bitterly cold still, and the further north I went, the colder it became. I was exhausted and weary. I was silently cursing Arlene and her wicked ways, for condemning me to this God forsaken place, and all because some woman stole her husband! It was a horrific thing to do to someone and for no reason at all.
I went from London by train, then by carriage until I reached Glasgow and was hustled by another train and carriage until I got to where I was told I was meant to be.
Personally, I wasn't so sure.
I was dropped off at the edge of the sprawling property, left with just my two small bags that held all I now owned in the world as I made my way to the main house, and what a house it was. The word 'estate' was not misused in this instance, grandeur and opulence was evident from as far away as the gates. I looked around and realized I was in the middle of mountains. I'd passed a large body of water and heard mutterings of a 'monster.' Where the hell had I landed myself now? I asked as I made my way to the side entrance. There was no way I would be permitted to enter through the front door, which I learned the hard way at my last job. I rang the large obnoxious bell and a few seconds later I was face to face with the most annoyed looking man I think I'd ever laid eyes on.
"Who are you and what do you want?"
"I… I'm Sookie Stackhouse. I'm here about the job? The um, maid's position, I was told this was the address?"
He rolled his eyes, "oh, good, another one. Well, come in then, you're letting all the heat out."
I walked into the hallway and looked down it. It was long and dank, with dark green tile and grey walls. I followed the unpleasant man into the larger section of the kitchen and it all looked a lot less intimidating than it had before. Well, it was before everyone standing in the kitchen stopped and looked in my direction.
"You're new," a large woman by the stove said, and I nodded before extending my hand.
"I'm Sookie Stackhouse. It's nice to meet y'all."
They all exchanged looks and the unpleasant man spoke up. "This one be a Yank."
"Ohh…" they all said and went back to what they were doing, and thus ignoring me.
"Actually Sir, I'm from New Orleans … So I'm not really-"
"You'll report to Mrs. Fortenberry, she's the head of the household staff, I am head of the kitchen staff. I'm Mr. Dearborn. I also provide butler service when we're particularly busy. You'll be sleeping in here…" he said as we made our way down yet another hallway. There were, as I was to learn, a lot of hallways. He opened a cream coloured door to a small room with one bed, a tiny window on the slanted roof, and a sink.
"Your uniform will be provided for you, and, of course, paid for out of your week's wage. All of which you can discuss with Mrs. Fortenberry." Before I had the chance to speak he was off again, and I was simply left alone. I looked around my new room, and it was bare to say the least, but it was dry and had the potential for warmth, I hoped. I waited and I waited, I waited so long that I must have given in to my tiredness because the next thing I knew, I opened my eyes and staring down at me was a cross looking woman with grey hair and a scowl.
"Stackhouse they tell me?"
I sat up quickly, "Yes, Ma'am. Sookie."
"You ever work in service before?"
"Yes, Ma'am for some months in London as a Lady's maid, before that-"
"Well, there are no ladies in this house, not anymore. You'll be taking the place of Sissy. She was the former maid, worked 'ere for years she did, and I never had a problem, not one! I don't expect the same from you, but I live on hope…" she 'tutted' to herself before carrying on, "You arrive from London then?"
"Well, your uniform will be provided for you, garnished from your wage of course, as will any others should you destroy the two original ones provided. Now, come with me and we'll go over the schedule."
As I tried to get a handle on everything she was sprouting at me, I had a feeling I failed, but I kept my head up as she led me from downstairs to the top of the house.
"We'll start here and work our way down. West wing of the house is cleaned daily, that's where the Lord usually spends most of his time, when he's here. He's not here at the moment."
"Oh, and his wife?"
"Passed away, as have his daughter and son. We do have one house guest at the moment, he's been here a while and will probably be here for a considerable amount of time. He is in the East wing, though when the Lord returns, they do tend to spend great deals of their time together…" she said showing me room after room after room.
"You don't go bother him now, you hear? His wishes are to be left alone as much as possible and I pride myself on minding my own, as should you!" She handed me a bunch of keys as we stepped into the drawing room. "These are yours, don't lose them, or there will be hell to pay."
I nodded. "Silver, brass, and gold cleaned daily, the carpets all must be brushed by hand every day too, and the fires all must be lit and maintained and when we have a large amounts of guests they must be done so silently, you understand?"
I nodded again, not that she gave me much room to speak.
"Good, now to the animals."
Animals? I froze.
"What kind of animals?"
"Well, the men see to the horses, and the outdoor dogs. We're left to care for Miss Sophie's animals. Just the dog and the cat, but they have a strict feeding schedule. The dog normally stays with Mr. Northman, however."
"Mr. Northman is the guest in the East wing. Do keep up, girl," she said, tutting to herself again as we made our way around another large staircase that led to a third floor. I was starting to get dizzy. "There are a few rules, of course," she said after we'd discussed my wages, which were just alright, but more than I had before, so I couldn't really complain. "You, under no circumstance are to enter into this room.. Do you understand? It's out of bounds at all times, to everyone."
"Do I have a key for it?"
"Yes, but you mustn't use it, or there will be hell to pay."
Seemed like Maxine thought there was hell to pay for just about everything.
I didn't, and I found it extremely odd, but I'd adhere to their rules. After all I was just a maid now.
"The reason you are here, is to serve, Sookie. And under my supervision I will ensure that you do so perfectly. Laziness is not tolerated in this household, not by me and certainly not by Lord Brigant, he expects things done to his liking and done at in a timely manner."
"I understand, but, where is the Lord now?"
"Currently he's visiting friends in London, he's been gone a few weeks, we expect him to return within the week."
I suddenly got anxious.
"Come now and meet the rest of the family."
"There are others?"
"No, the staff, Lord Niall refers to everyone as family, it's just his way," she said as we finally made our way to the large kitchen, travelling though the dank hallways to get to it. I wondered if I would need a map, just to find my way.
"Everyone this is Susi, she's from America."
"Sookie…" I corrected as politely as I could as she and I stood in from of a room full of people.
She rolled her eyes, "Yes, and she's taking Cissies' place, she'll be starting in the morning so I hope Dawn and you Amelia will help her with how we do things around here? If not-"
"There will be hell to pay," both girls said simultaneously, and I couldn't help but crack a smile. Dawn was tall and slim in her black and white uniform, the one I assumed I'd be wearing soon. She had shiny chestnut hair and bright blue eyes, and she was pretty to say the least. Amelia was a little plumper, though just as tall. I instantly felt like the shortest girl at church all over again. I was introduced to the Mr. Northman's valet – Bobby Burnham, and the rest of Niall's staff including the two Footmen - Trey Dawson and Remy Savoy, both broad men. Trey sported a well-clipped beard, and Remy was clean shaven with kind eyes, I noted. The three cooks were less than friendly though, there was a Liam, a Diane and a Malcolm, and I couldn't quite catch their last names all of their accents - ones I assumed to be native of where we were - were exceptionally thick, and they mumbled. I made a note to listen better when around them; I had a feeling I would have to. I was given dinner, of which I was extremely thankful to have been given,. as I was more hungry that I could remember. Travelling always made me so. Then I was told that I'd be serving Mr. Northman breakfast in the morning with Dawn, and to be up and dressed by six. I understood, and after attempting in vain to make my room feel a little bit more like my own, I fell asleep soundly; worries of the next day could wait until then.
I woke with the dawn as always, washed and dressed quickly in my new crisp uniform, how she knew my size just by looking at me was a skill of Mrs. Fortenberry's, that's for sure. I walked to the kitchen by five thirty expecting breakfast; I was greeted by empty stares from the cooks.
"Breakfast is at five, you're too late," Diane said with a thick unique accent that I knew to be English, I just wasn't sure from where, exactly.
"Oh, right, sorry, I didn't know-"
"Now ye' do so don' be late any more or ye' wonny get fed," Malcolm said in an accent I had never heard before, I wasn't even sure he was speaking English, so I just nodded. I eyed the teapot and helped myself to a cup, while they glared. Food or no food I couldn't go until lunch without something to tide me over, I was sure to faint. I smoothed down my white apron as the breakfast for Mr. Northman was placed in front of me on a large silver tray. Two boiled eggs, toasted bread and butter with tea and orange juice. I envied him in that moment, because I was starving.
Dawn came hustling around the door a second later. "You take the tray, I'll lead the way, don't speak unless spoken to, all right?"
"Sure, of course."
"He doesn't say a whole lot, and he doesn't much care for the outdoors either from what I've seen. He keeps to himself and that's how I think he likes it, so no talking!"
I was instantly scared, why was everyone so tense when it came to this Mr. Northman, I wondered. How bad could he be?
We walked what seemed like a mile to the East wing of the house and up a flight of stairs into a bedroom, the shutters were already pulled back and the fire was lit. Things obviously started early for Mr. Northman. I set the tray down on the table by the window as Dawn instructed as she added more coal to the fire, I noticed the large bed ruffled and slept in, I saw a shirt hanging by the wardrobes, with pants – or trousers – laying neatly on the bed, then the door to the other room opened and out stepped the mysterious Mr Northman – in nothing but a large white towel.
I averted my eyes quickly, focusing on taking the items from my tray and playing them on the table, quickly. He came to sit down, and even though my eyes were focused it was as if I could feel his gaze on me, it made me extremely nervous, so nervous in fact that I tipped the small jug of milk over, having it land on his towel covered lap. He stood up immediately and Dawn came rushing over, fussing, I was too stunned to even say anything, my mouth just hung agape.
"Sookie! Eric, I'm sorry, she's new ... and incompetent, I'll take care of this…" she said, taking the napkin and wiping and wiping at him. He just stood there looking something between stunned and … amused?
He said nothing as I closed my eyes. I just wanted the ground to swallow me up, right then and there.
"Sookie, leave I'll fix this…" Dawn said in a fluster.
"Leave," she said again, widening her eyes and grabbing my arm to lead me to the door which was promptly slammed in my face.
Oh, Jesus take me, I thought, as embarrassment ran through me.
What was wrong with me? I'd seen a man in a towel before. Of course he was my husband and it was appropriate, but I'd never been so nervous before that … oh, I dread to think what Mrs. Fortenberry was going to say next. There would surely be hell to pay, and I'd be the one paying it.
Mr. Northman was going to have me sacked, for sure.