Master had been specific in his instructions, and he had relayed them carefully to Miss so that every detail could be satisfied. As with all his tasks he wanted her to succeed, but she also knew that any failure on her part would be met with swift correction. Those were never good days. Stifling a shiver, Miss hurried down the main stairs, one hand trailing the polished mahogany banister. Her slippers were almost silent against the thick Persian rug. The closer she came to the kitchen, the stiffer her posture grew. By the time she faced the others, she no longer resembled her master’s companion that occupied the upstairs.
Miss stalked along the line of domestic staff as they stood in readiness for afternoon tea. The master of the house had expressed a desire to take his tea by the lake, and his staff had scurried to rearrange the repast from indoors to out. Miss was responsible for coordinating them all, and she tugged at their skirts to make certain they hung properly. She pinched the tender sides of underarms to make certain they paid attention and fired questions in rapid succession, expecting a nod of agreement before she had finished the sentence. Her attitude was one of military precision, and the intensity of her inspection made the scullery maid devote some thought to fainting.
“You need a hat, Marguerite, or the sunset will turn your complexion ruddy,” Miss scolded. “Master dislikes his girls looking like farmhands. You have the cello, I see. You’re going to play Bach’s concertos, yes?”
“Yes, Miss,” Marguerite replied with a curtsy.
“And you have a stool to sit upon?” Miss thrust a straw hat into Marguerite’s hand and gave her a pointed glance.
“Yes, Miss. But I’ll need help carrying it all out to the lake. It’s difficult managing the cello and bow in addition to the stool.”
Cold blue eyes stared at Marguerite as a silence grew between them. Miss stared at the girl as if she had never before in her life encountered such a bold specimen. Embarrassment stained Marguerite’s cheeks a deep red, and finally she dropped her eyes to the floor in defeat. She should have known better than to mention it and risk Miss’s temper.
“I’ll… I’ll somehow manage it,” Marguerite stammered.
“Of course you will,” Miss replied and briskly rubbed her hands together as if she were dusting off a bug.
Next in line was the scullery maid, and Miss surmised from the woman’s quivering body that something had gone amiss. “Did you assemble everything as instructed?” she asked.
“Yes, Miss,” the scullery maid said. “I have the tea service and the linens, the hot water and the tea, of course.”
“Excellent. Then we’re ready to adjourn to the lake?”
“Well, there’s a slight problem.” The scullery maid’s eyes squeezed shut, and Miss heard her inhale deeply. “I can’t find the tea strainer.” Out came the girl’s breath in a rush.
“What do you mean you can’t find it? We use the damn thing every day. How on earth could you lose it?”
“I don’t know, Miss. I swear I don’t. Yesterday I washed it and put it away in the cupboard just as I do every day.” She wrung her hands. “I swear, Miss. I’ve searched the kitchen top to bottom.”
The expression on Miss’s face could only be described as a gathering of thunderclouds, but when she spoke, her tone was low and quiet. Her hand lashed out like a snake to grab a fistful of the scullery maid’s auburn locks, and she yanked the maid’s head back to expose her throat. Whimpering, the maid clutched at Miss’s skirt with frantic fingers.
“Now see here, girl. You are going to find that tea strainer in the next ten minutes or Master won’t be able to have his tea. If he can’t have his tea, he will take it out of my hide. Your failure becomes my failure. And the tender skin of my backside is worth more than you’ll ever earn in your worthless life. Mark my words, girl, if I must bear the lashes for your mistake, I will deliver them to you with none of Master’s restraint or benevolence. Do I make myself absolutely clear?”
The maid was crying now, great sobs wracking her chest.
“Don’t waste our time with tears. Go find the strainer.” Miss released her, and the maid staggered. Clutching a handkerchief to her red nose, the scullery maid dashed out of the room.
Miss sighed loudly and threw up her hands in disgust. “I swear, Marguerite, even if she finds the stupid thing, I may still string her up as an example. I can’t have you girls thinking that this sort of thing is acceptable.”
“No, Miss,” Marguerite murmured.
Thank goodness she only had to play the cello.