There he is, staring right down his long sharp nose at me. “One and a half hours to buy a bar of soap. That must be remarkable, even for a kitchen maid.”
I ask you! Sarcastic old man! And it was none of his business, anyway – that’s the cook’s place. I’m a kitchen maid, not a house maid. “I’m sorry, Mr Cameron. Er, there was –”
“I assume you were distracted by the idolatrous displays in the Guild Square.”
‘Idolatrous’ – He actually said that! I mean, this is the nineteenth century, for goodness sake! Who does he think is Queen: Boadicea or Victoria – God bless her? I saw Queen Victoria, you know, at – oh, I have told you, haven’t I.
Well, anyway, idolatrous! Oswick Wakenight! And yes of course that’s what I was doing, I thought to myself, you sanctimonious old prig.
“ ‘Walk ye not in the statutes of your fathers, neither observe their judgments, nor defile yourselves with their idols: I am the Lord your God.’ Ezekiel chapter 20 verse 18, Jenny.” In his priggish, nasal drone the word ‘Ezekiel’ sounded like fingernails scraping on a window pane.
“Yes, Mr Cameron.”
“Very well. Get on with your work.”
“Yes, Mr Cameron.”
And you get on with yours, Mr Cameron, and stop poking your sharp nose into what doesn’t concern you! And the sooner his lordship comes back, the better. Sir Ruthven doesn’t tolerate your preaching, does he!
I fetched the scrubbing brush out and had a good go at the scullery. I always feel better after that.
It was already getting dark, so it must have been about five when word comes round that we’re all wanted in the servants’ hall. When we get there, old Holier-than-Thou Cameron stands up. Oh no, I thought. He’s going to preach at us about the idolatrous goings-on at the Wakenight!
But no. For once I was wrong. Well, almost wrong.
“There has been a communication from his lordship,” he begins, and I see he’s holding a sheet of paper in his hand. He puts those silly little pince-nez of his on the point of his nose like a duchess. “The passage that matters is this.” He makes a grummelling noise in his throat and stares at the paper. “ ‘Since January the sixth is Oswick Wakenight, please inform all staff that they may have the evening off, provided that they return in time to ensure that the household runs smoothly the following day, and provided at least one senior member of staff remains in the house.’ ” He looks up, squinting over his glasses. “Mrs Davis has agreed to stay,” he added.
Cook’s staying! Oh, that’s wonderful, I thought. I needn’t be back till one at the earliest, then!
Mr Cameron stares at his sheet again. “ ‘Staff should note that Wakenight has become notorious in recent years for a certain rowdy element in the crowd, and so any member of staff who wishes may borrow a whistle –’ his lordship has a small stock of these modern police-type whistles that are most effective even in a crowd – ‘so that they can raise an alarm.’” He looks at us over his pince-nez and grummells again. “His lordship’s advice is well thought of – all staff, but especially female members of staff, would be well advised to take that offer, and not to hesitate to use it if need arise.”
So some lout threatens you, and you blow the whistle. Who will come! I mean, anyone with any nouse will run the other way! I’m taking a carving knife in my ruff – and a spare kitchen knife in my stocking top. I know what’s what – I know what it can be like at these things, believe me, especially late on.
“These are his lordship’s instructions, and they will of course be carried out. But I most earnestly recommend you all not to involve yourselves in these pagan idolatries, instead that you consider your immortal souls. I myself shall be attending a prayer meeting at Mallergate Chapel, and if any of you wish to join the brethren and sistern there in spiritual warfare against the powers of paganism and idolatry around us, I would be delighted to introduce you to the meeting.”
Paganism in the nineteenth century! And I’m as good a Christian as him any day, even if he is chapel and I’m church – my grandmother having been housekeeper to a Marquis.
Anyway, a couple of hours later Ruby and I – Ruby’s the upstairs maid, she’s a good pal of mine, and gradely company – anyway, we’re wandering through the falling snow into Old Market, so wrapped up against the wind and snow that we looked like two Eccles cakes, and chewing hot baked potatoes to warm us from the inside.
Then we hear “Hello! You’ve slidden out too?”
Oh. Oh well. Susan’s well enough, but she is a bit prissy, a bit girlish, if you know what I mean, especially for a lady’s maid. You’d think her work would have got the primness out of her long ago.
“Susan! No, we haven’t slidden out! His lordship’s given the whole house the night off! We reckon we’ve got till one-ish.”
“Goodness! You two don’t know how lucky you are. I daren’t risk past eleven o’clock – and even that’s only because Housekeeper’s too stupid to notice when I go out and come back. Hey, the fun’s starting! Can I come with you? Mary’s got a touch of the you-know-whats.”
See what I mean about Susan being prim? In plainer English, Mary daren’t go far from a privy. Not surprised – I’ve tasted their cook’s cooking. “Yes of course, Susan! Have some of my baked potato!”
We found a place to watch – in the end, anyway; you know how it goes; every time we thought we’d got a good viewpoint some toff or other would push us aside and take it over. Well, you expect that, don’t you. But we were well settled halfway up the steps at the front of the Black Boar, when the Oswick Waits started playing. They came marching out of Irkengate, and stood over to one side by the Guildhouse; when they stopped there was such a silence! But then we all cheered when we saw the Golden Queen come into the Square in a proper procession with her tough, male guards tumbling and spinning before her, all flaming in red and yellow; the music started again louder than ever, and we all watched her climb, step by step, up to the high throne, her guards dancing a fiery dance in the Square in front of her, making hot swirls as the snow blew around them. She looked so tiny up there – I could have cuddled her!
Then the music stopped, sharp; the silence held for two breaths; then we heard the beat, like a distant drum, and we all turned to watch the other side of the square.
Masked woman warriors in skull-white uniforms slow marching out of the snowy black gap of Micklegate, seeming to vanish and appear again against the snow. They carried white-painted staves, and they thumped them on the ground as they marched – that was the drumming we heard; the rhythm ran cold up my backbone: one, pause, two, thump – little puffs of snow came up at each thump. Susan was letting out little gasps at each step, and even I bit my lip, it was so eerie. And then, behind that ghostly army, the White King – gigantic, his glittering silver robe and crown towering high above the crowd, almost above the roofs of the houses. He lurched and lumbered in, step by step; frightening, of course, but half comical as well – and just then to me, it was more frightening for being comical. I’ve always had my doubts about clowns, you know. The icy breeze knifed through our coats – a real lazy Oswick wind, too lazy to go round you – and it blew the White King’s clothing around as well. I could see the shapes of the four big strong lads in each leg holding up his wicker frame; I could see them straining to keep control against that wind.
The warriors halted; the drumming stopped; the White King stood opposite the Golden Queen’s throne, towering over her, and we all held our breath – not just the three of us, but the whole crowd; you would have heard a pin drop. Then two by two his warriors cartwheeled towards the throne, danced as if they were dancing a mock battle with two of her guards, and each time white won against gold. And at each win the monstrous White King strode one pace forward towards the tiny Queen’s high throne. We held our breath.
Now they were face to face; his gigantic white horror against her tiny golden beauty. She stood up, drew her shining blade and swept it round in front of her; the huge head rocked a couple of times, teetered on the edge of the neck, and tumbled to the ground. As it fell, white doves with golden streamers flew out from where the head had been.
I cheered, we cheered, the crowd cheered, the warriors and guards danced and pranced while people covered the empty body of the White King with logs and branches, and finally the Golden Queen flung a torch down onto the heap. It blazed into a bonfire.
We cheered and cheered, they threw more branches and logs onto the blaze, and the Golden Queen and all the dancers, white and gold, danced their dance three times around the fire. Then they all went off – I really hope to a good bowl of hotpot. They’d need it.
“Brilliant!” breathed Susan. “How about some more baked potatoes?”
“Or a black pudding each?” said I. After all, I’d not had a proper dinner.
(To be continued - thanks to the character limit!)