Stood rigidly to attention either side of the hearth, the two bronze fire-dogs had been struggling to maintain that British stiff upper lipidness, which up until earlier that evening had best befitted their station in life... indeed, for the last half hour at least had become brothers in arms to the dying embers filtering through the bars of the cast-iron grate, passing from the present here and now, having lost every thermal attribute necessary to sustain any further vestige of life... to the shortly forthcoming and being at oneness with the Universe... only to fall foul of the overflowing ash-pan below. This premature cashing in of the coal fire's chips could only be attributed to the recent and prolonged thrashing from the Baronial poker... and a distinct lack of enthusiasm from the family retainer, whom it appeared, required spurring along in a like manner... and while unseen mechanisms were heard to be engaging, then resonating deep within the Hall... that unless summoned... and quickly, the housekeeper had little intention of making an appearance of her own choosing and re-stoke the Study fire while the BBC Home Service were airing 'Your 100 Best Tunes' on the wireless, leaving the heavily tarnished pendulum to continue measuring the hour.
An indistinct mutter and snap of a closing door latch sounded in the immediate distance as the unhurried shuffle of domestic footsteps... not too dissimilar from those of Jacob Marley's spectral visitation to Scrooge... echoed ever closer along the ancient, oak panelled hallway without. Their sudden cessation, allowing the housekeeper ingress to the book lined Study, was by way of sporadic groans from unoiled hinges, door furniture that voiced the same overwhelming lack of attention as that of the fire-grate set in the wall opposite and presumably, from the same overwhelming lack of domestic servitude.
"Had his Lordship rang...?" the Housekeeper wailed dolefully, giving her employer what might casually pass for a courteous bob... and in lieu no doubt, of Marley's rattling chains, padlocks and dusty ledgers... "and would there be anything further his Lordship required..." before she took her leave for the evening. The notion of a sticky mint humbug warming the cockles of his ancient, aristocratic heart gave her pause for thought as she rummaged through her pinafore pockets, then thought better of it, after all, confectionary didn't grow on trees... In bobbing a second time she noticed the malnourished, yet strangely twinkling coal-scuttle lounging over by the hearth, whose insubstantial contents had taken on an ethereal quality earlier that evening and had now transferred its undivided attention to the recently summoned Housekeeper, who was quite prepared to offer up a candle in supplication come next Evensong were she mistaken, but the coal-scuttle's twinkle bore every intimation of giving what appeared to be a very suggestive 'come-on' in return... and had been doing so since she first entered the room... 'and did she have any plans of her own that particular evening', the coal-scuttle twinkled suavely, 'perchance a leisurely stroll down by the old coal cellar steps...' Now perhaps it was the lateness of the hour which had caused the Housekeeper's confusion that evening, or perhaps an over stretched imagination, brought on through domestic inactivity, but it wouldn't take a great deal to hazard that a lingering fondness for Gin and tonic played no small part towards her next curtsey, which she did, albeit unwittingly, in the unerring direction of the winking coal-scuttle.
With the household keys as her badge-of-office, jangling defiantly from the chain around her waist, the housekeeper began inching back the same way she came, back towards the study door and freedom... and back into the welcoming arms of her 1/4 lb. bag of peppermint humbugs and the pint of best London Gin she'd had to relinquish prior to 'Songs of Praise...' and which was now to be found... should you happen to be an inquisitive fly on a particular piece of floral wallpaper... half-cut, locked arm in arm with the bottle of Indian tonic water and in the final, intoxicating throws of William Blake's, 'Jerusalem...' hic.
"Ha-arrumph..." the elderly gentleman cleared his throat... "ah Gabby" he said, lowering his book and placing it face down upon the occasional table set beside him. The flatulent groan of tired leather upholstery made itself heard above the steady monotony of the mantle-piece clock as he stood and chaffed his hands in the direction of the bereft fire, "Oh! I'm sorry your Lordship, then there was something...?" as she maintained her steady but relentless backwards retreat unabated, the double-barrelled bunch of keys taking up a strong rear-guard action and away from the well disposed coal scuttle... "and was his Lordship quite certain that he required the fire stoking at such a late hour..." she dared, "perhaps a nice warming glass of port and brandy instead" gesturing towards the salver, long since tarnished by the half hearted attentions of a proprietary metal polish... "and would he care for..." then thought better of offering to plump the chair cushions herself, having discovered Mort, the household mouser in the final stages of claiming them as his own, deftly rearranging the Victorian Plush with far more than any noble airs or graces.
"Poor Mrs Alabaster, you will recall Sir, I'm sure..." a pained expression crossed the Housekeepers face as she collided with a corner of the Georgian writing bureau and bringing her to an abrupt halt... "her late Ladyships lady" she continued, indiscreetly rubbing her derriere, "whose services your Lordship dispensed with at the onset of last Winter, shortly after the funeral, God rest her late Ladyship... when you made her redundant... and how she's been unable to find a new situation ever since on account of her lumbago flaring up again, seeing as how it's been the coldest January in living memory", which in all likelihood meant since records began... "and SHE didn't have any coal either... or a roof over her head for all anyone cared... begging yer' pardon, yer' Lordship", letting her tongue slip as she attempted yet one more curtsey... "and it's wicked-cruel outside this time of year Sir, you wouldn't turn a dog out in it..." and how ordering the coal used to be Mrs Alabaster's responsibility...
"Oh no, Sir", as she unsuccessfully stifled a hiccup...she would be only too delighted to rouse the Cook, especially after that dodgy piece of scrag-end they'd all had to suffer during Epiphany, but it was only last week that the Doctor had confined Cookie to bed with the croup... "as I'm sure your Lordship will recall..." as she attempted a double curtsey for effect, the despondent coal-scuttle now all but forgotten, "that below-stairs had been dining on pottage since a week Friday gone... and it tends to get a little moribund after almost a fortnight your Honour... and that Mrs Cotswold's rheumatism was still showing no signs of improvement either by the looks of things... and was having to visit the Chiropodist every fortnight for her bunions scraping... and how she's been advised to keep taking the embrocation as required".
As a young woman, any disposition her grandmother may have had towards sobriety or moral virtue had quickly been prevailed upon by the former Master's son taking intimacy to the next level with the saucy Parlour Maid's good nature. Shortly thereafter, having been obliged to marry the first available Gardener that came along, she was often heard to say "a bun in the oven's worth two in the bush" for it was with stories 'of such goings-on' that made it abundantly clear to the Housekeeper, that it was far more than old age creeping up... and that if she didn't keep her wits wrapped tightly about her, as she threw a sideways glance at the winking philanderer... then who would.
As for the Gardener, "well... he couldn't possibly manage the cellar steps at this late hour, yer' Lordship, wot' with the weather being the way it is right now Sir, seasonal... and him with his broken caliper... and bronchitis playing him up at every turn, even though his own ailing missus swore by a freshly grown rhubarb poultice first thing each morning", but oddly enough, "how it always seemed to work better if the young barmaid down in the village rubbed it on, especially around opening time..." even his brother, Mr Potts Senior, ever since their Dad passed away... "God rest his eternal soul", as she whirled, twice in as many seconds, a mystical finger in the air... had said how surprised he'd been to discover that it could be used as a ground mulch for seed-cucumbers... it was truly amazing how The Good Lord provided for the righteous... and even as she spoke, was working in mysterious ways, His Wonders to Behold... "Praised-Be-The-Lord".
And how the entire household, with the possible exception of Mrs Alabaster, her late Ladyships lady, who doggedly refused to be evicted from her 'Grace n' Favour cottage...' the one with pretty red roses growing around the door, that despite a string of eviction notices from the apoplectic Estate manager... had noticed what a fine upstanding Gentleman his Lordship had steadfastly remained since her late Ladyships sudden demise... "God-rest-her-immortal-soul..." and may she allow herself to say, "how refreshing it was to have such a progressively minded and discerning employer such as his Lordship at the helm, one filled with patient understanding and commitment towards the entire household..." much like herself...
Fearing an uncontrollable attack of the ague, which invariably took the form of a selfless and unstinting dereliction to duty and always flared up at the slightest suggestion of having to roll her sleeves up and do something... which incidentally, was the first mutual attraction by common consent to which her parents, some forty years earlier had discovered they both held in tandem... and "would his Lordship take exception..." feigning a sudden relapse as she gestured towards the nearest chair, were she to take the weight off her feet... she plonked herself solidly upon the Chippendale before his Lordship could decline... "perhaps a recuperative drop of brandy" she volunteered, "just for medicinal purposes", she swept her feet onto the footstool, then crossed them with a flourish that would have caused Cyrano de Bergerac to hang up his sword... "the good stuff, if his Lordship would be so kind, in the lead-crystal decanter... over in the corner by the potted plant", she caught sight of the adjacent cigarette box, also tarnished... "just to keep body and soul together, may it please 'Him upon High'..." and just long enough to brave the coal cellar steps and refill the amorous scuttle... "if only it were a little less chilly", she gave an affected cough... on account of her diphtheria acting up again, she felt sure that his Lordship understood... Moving over to one of the book lined alcoves, the elderly Gentleman lifted several tomes from the shelves... 'My Life in Anthracite', an illustrated compendium' "to begin with, I think... followed by... hmm!" 'The History of Fossil-Fuels, a comprehensive study in twelve breath taking volumes' "and we'll take it from there" as he threw the first on the barely smouldering embers...
... ... ...**
a work in progress. 1859