Thursday, November 24, 2016

Story: Her Most Remarkable Performance. Chapter 1.

by Camille Langtry

Chapter 1
London. 1884.

The  maid straightened an imaginary wrinkle in her snow-white ruffled apron, readjusted a lacy cap on top of her chestnut hair, knocked on the door and entered her mistress’s bedroom.


“Did Madame ring?”

“Yes, I need help undressing,” said the young mistress, dressed in a bustled crimson ball gown, and set down, facing a large ornate vanity.

“Most certainly, Ma’am”, the maid answered in the most respectful tone of voice she could master and curtseyed. She took the position behind her sitting mistress and started removing hairpins and, after the lady’s hair was set free from the confines of her elaborate evening coiffure, began combing it.

“Ouch! Careful, you clumsy cow… Did you pull any of my ‘air out? It felt like you did. Here, give it back to me.” The mistress grabbed an ivory comb from her maid’s hand and began working on her brown hair in long, confident strokes. “I don’t know why I keep paying ya, girl, I really don’t.”

“I am so sorry, Madame, this won’t happen again,” the maid ventured. The mistress put the comb away and stood up, facing the humbled maid.

“I sometimes wonder if you are even fit to be a lady’s maid and…”, the mistress couldn’t finish and began chuckling… “I am sorry, Miss… I…”

Her chuckles turned into hysterical laughter, as the maid looked at her first in surprise and then with barely contained indignation.

“What is so difficult about following the script? And what is so funny? I gave you very specific and easy instructions and still you can’t follow them. I knew I shouldn’t have trusted you to begin with,’’ the maid was virtually screaming at the mistress now.

“I am really sorry, Miss Ashburton, I just can’t do this. Please, don’t be angry,” replied the “mistress” and lowered her eyes.

“Out, Sarah. Get out. Now!” said “the maid”. Her commanding voice and aristocratic bearing left little doubt it was her, who was the mistress in the room.

“Yes, Miss.” Sarah raised the heavy multi-layered skirts of her evening dress with both hands, feeling very uncomfortable in the exquisite silk and satin creation with its large bustle and a long train with woven flowers, and began walking awkwardly toward the door, trying not to trip over.

“Wait, remove my dress!” The real mistress interjected. “And don’t forget my pearls and earrings too.”

“Yes, Miss.” Sarah came behind the mahogany four-section screen.

“Where did you leave your things?” the mistress demanded.

“On the bed, Miss,” responded the maid.

Lady Ashburton grabbed her maid’s plain print dress and threw it over the folding screen, adding impatiently: “Here, quickly!”

“Sorry, Miss, I think I need ‘elp with them hooks in the back,” complained the maid.

Lady Ashburton sighed deeply and began working slowly on the many hooks that sealed Sarah inside the elaborate gown. It soon fell to the floor in a mountain of silk brocade, satin and lace. Sarah took off a lovely string of pearls from her neck and removed a matching pair of earrings –  they went into a Chinese lacquered box of her mistress –  and, this time without her ladyship’s help, put on her simple print dress of a domestic servant.

“Now out,” a visibly distressed Lady Ashburton ordered, while still dressed in a black-and-white lady's maid’s uniform, as she pointed her finger at the door. Sarah curtseyed to acknowledge she understood,  and quickly walked out, locking the door behind her.

-----

Lady Georgina Ashburton called it her little obsession. Something she could neither control nor fully explain, even to herself. Since she was a little girl she was fascinated by the working classes. They were so different than her parents and relatives, not to mention their well-to-do high society friends. They talked differently, dressed differently, walked differently, they even smelled differently.

Her mother, Lady Olivia, God bless her soul, made it her mission in life to turn Georgina, through rigorous education, into an epitome of modesty, chastity and good taste and would often use their servants and working classes in general, as examples of how things should not be done.

"Don't talk so loudly, Georgina. It's unbecoming. Only low classes bawl," Lady Olivia would school her daughter.

"Keep your back straight, don't slouch. You look like a kitchen maid carrying a bucket when you do,"  Georgina would be told if her deportment did not meet her mother’s strict standards.

"How did you tie your bonnet? Even our chambermaid wears hers better, I dare say!" her ladyship would tell her only daughter, driving the young girl to tears.

"Looking like working classes" was undoubtedly the worst offense possible for Lady Olivia, being seen as vulgar –  a far worse crime for her than stealing or even murder. But for Georgina, her mother's apparent disapproval was part of the appeal, a glimpse of unattainable freedom to do whatever she wanted however she wanted it. The working classes could sit, dress and talk as they pleased and the society accepted that as a given. But she, despite her family wealth and her father's societal standing, could barely make a step or utter a word without a danger of breaking an all-important social norm –  or so it often seemed to the young Lady Georgina.

She would secretly observe the life of servants in her father's sprawling country estate or in their Mayfair mansion and, over the years, began to almost envy their apparent disregard for the rules of etiquette that her mother held so dear. They were not obsessed with what others would think, they just got on with their simple lives. They were free in a way that Georgina could never aspire to be. Her world was the world of French and dancing lessons, the world of nice and exquisite things that shielded her from outside dangers –  much like a cage protected an exotic and beautiful bird from a roaming cat. It was the life she could not escape. That made the other world, where girls her age could play on the street unsupervised instead of dressing up like porcelain dolls to play the piano for their parents’ posh guests, even more appealing.

There was one kitchen maid in particular –  Ruby, by name, whom Georgina found most fascinating. She was in her late 30s, a strong and rough woman that talked in a raucous, booming voice. The sleeves of her shirtwaist were always rolled up to reveal her red and calloused hands, that were showing unmistakable signs of a quarter century of heavy manual labor.  There was a small kitchen window facing the garden and Georgina would sometimes secretly sit outside, observing Ruby’s work.

Ruby would hurry across her little kitchen kingdom, her hair frowsy, her apron askew; she had a habit of putting the backside of her right hand against her waist when she paused to look for something –  a vulgar gesture that was as much a sign of the maid’s low-class upbringing as her ill-groomed hair or her sweaty smell. For Georgina, it was a forbidden world –  the one she both envied and found repulsive. Dirty, low, uncultured and common and yet, strangely tempting and fascinating. Georgina would dream about becoming just like Ruby –  she wished her hands would become red from all the washing and cleaning and she’d be seen by the whole world as nothing, but a simple working woman forever stuck in the world of drudgery. It was a disturbing childhood fantasy and the one she couldn’t get out from her head, as she was growing up.

Time has passed and one day Georgina, who just turned 18, found a discarded maid’s uniform –  its previous owner left their employment and Miss Higgins, the housekeeper, just left it in a drawer close to the attic. Georgina simply couldn’t resist the urge to try it on. The result astonished her. A different person looked back at her from the mirror. Yes, the girl in a black dress with a white collar and cuffs and a pretty lace apron looked just like Georgina the heiress, but for anyone who didn’t know her there would be no doubts about her occupation. To the outside world she looked just like a common maid. Georgina found this revelation startling. Can becoming a different person, that working class woman she fantasized about, be as easy as slipping on a maid’s dress? If not in real life, then as a game she’d play? Wouldn’t that be exciting, she mused?

So she began her game, her little obsession. Needless to say, she was doing all this in secret, embarrassed that someone would find out and inform her mother. At first she would just dress up in the maid’s uniform in her quarters and parade in front of the mirror, mimicking Ruby’s coarse movements and unrefined mannerisms. Or she would grab a tray and walk around the room as if she was bringing something to her master or mistress. This dress-up game gave her an odd sense of comfort, as if her working class alter ego, dressed in the livery of a maidservant, was the real Georgina, the Georgina she wanted to become.  Like many girls, she dreamed of becoming a Cinderella, only in her particular case, the handsome prince never found her, while leaving her forever to the unsung life of cleaning pots and scrubbing floors.

It wasn’t too long before Georgina got tired of it though. The initial excitement was gone – and just putting on a black dress and an apron and standing in front of the mirror was no longer enough. It was as if Georgina had this need to push herself further and further. That’s when Sarah was brought into the game. Instead of walking around the room all by herself, Georgina would now have a “mistress” she would serve –  bring her tea, help her remove her dress and so on. The young servant girl, who was about same age as her mistress, would act as the noble lady, while Georgina would act as her maid.

Sarah found the whole idea peculiar, but agreed reluctantly –  after promising her mistress she wouldn’t tell a soul. The arrangement worked for a while –  the two would do their act for fifteen minutes or so a few times a week –  but Sarah proved completely devoid of any acting ability. She was really struggling to impersonate a noble lady –  even when Georgina wrote down the lines she was supposed to recite. And Sarah’s constant giggling was infuriating, while at the same time her Cockney accent kept re-emerging, which completely compromised any plausibility  that she was a noble lady. It was a total, embarrassing disaster –  at least, as far as Georgina’s intended goal of emulating a real life scenario was concerned.

-----------------

Georgina slowly removed her apron, cap and then the black uniform and put on her dressing gown. She felt terrible –  both because she lost her composure with Sarah and because her covert arrangement was not working out. She was also feeling ashamed of her dark fantasies and ashamed even more of being excited by them. Was it a mistake to have brought Sarah into her game? Practically, however, what other options did she have?

She rang the bell and a minute later Sarah re-entered the bedroom, this time dressed as a prim and proper lady’s maid, complete with an oversized starched cap that gave her a slightly silly look.

“Sarah, fill the bath for me, please.”

“Yes, Miss.”

“And.. Sarah. I apologize for being rude to you earlier.”

“That is fine, Miss.”

“No it is not fine, Sarah. You must understand how important this game is for me. I am sorry this is not working out.”

Sarah nodded and began preparing the bath for Georgina. They kept silent for a few minutes, when Sarah turned to her mistress –  she has now fully reverted to her working class accent, no longer  self-consciously trying –  albeit with mixed results –  to sound like a refined lady for her mistress’s game.

“May I suggest sumpt’in, Miss?”

“You certainly can, please go on.”

“I bin thinkin’... My cousin Evelyn, our mothers were sisters, they were, she an actress ‘ere in London. I went to see ‘er once, she was playin’ a duchess or a countess so and so, I can’t remember now. You know, in a fancy gown and them diamonds and all. And I must say she was the most regal creature I ever seed! She, a daughter of a washerwoman! If ‘ere’s someone to play the role you need, it’s ‘er –   Evelyn.”

18 comments:

  1. An Appreciative ReaderNovember 24, 2016 at 10:40 AM

    Wonderful chapter again! This is one of the best stories I've read - and from the previous chapter you released clearly popular with many :). I love the intricate detail of your descriptions, helps me imagine the costumes and the appearances. And the story is well plotted, you can see already the seeds of destruction but also how they got there.

    Really well done and looking forward to the next chapter!

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    1. Thank you so much. Wait until you see descriptions in the following chapters! Yes, there are seeds of destruction seen everywhere, but it's the journey that matters.

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  2. Excellent setting in motion of the characters directions. I'm interested to see how this is going to develop.

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    1. Yes, the characters' paths will cross in more ways than one. I hope I dont make it too predictable for readers.

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  3. OMG this story is so exciting!
    Seems to me that the Young noble mistress in the Prolog is the actress Evelyn who is visiting the Former lady Georginia ten years later.
    There must be happend a lot in this ten years.
    Please continue soon I can't wait!!

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    1. There is a lot more to follow before we are back to square one.

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  4. Very interesting start to a story. But I noticed a couple of spelling/phrasing items that jumped out at me.

    In the paragraph with Cinderella, was the lack of Prince Charming "living her forever..." or did you mean "while leaving her forever ...."

    Then a few paragraphs later, "she ranged the bell..." Did you mean, "she rang (or rung) the bell..."

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    1. Fixed that, thanks. I blame the working classes and their speech patterns for spoiling my otherwise flawless prose!

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  5. Definitely going to be a great read. Looking forward to the upcoming chapters and where it is going to lead Lady Georgina

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  6. This is off to a great start! I look forward eagerly to future instalments.

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  7. Very interesting story Camille.
    I`m loving the detail, looking forward to the next episode.
    BillA.

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    1. Thanks, Bill. Planning to keep it even more detailed without going overboard.

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  8. A great start. Can't wait for the next instalment

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    1. Thank you, more to follow very soon. Stay tuned.

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  9. Reminding...
    One can be only one of "Miss Ashburton","Lady Ashburton",or "Lady Georgina".They are not ways in which one could properly refer to the same person at the same time.

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  10. Excellent beginning. Had to read it a couple times before finally understanding the premise. Looking forward toward the development of this story.

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