8. Behind Closed Doors
"Sweep first your own threshold," says Nana to me, her nimble fingers busy with the embroidery on a lady's slip.
Even though it is not suitable.
Everyone knows. Except perhaps that stuffy head groomsman. He cares little for anything outside his carriages and horses. All the household servants know.
The corridors belong to us, after all.
Particularly those places behind the stairs and within the linen closets, away from the hustle-bustle of the house, where no one knows you're there if you're sensible about it. Nana says they were built to make the work easier for us and unobtrusive for our guests. After all, who wishes to return from a stroll in the garden only to be met in the hall by some woman with an armful of dirty laundry or a nightsoil bucket in hand?
But the passages have been used for other purposes too.
It's shameful the way Mistress coyly tilts her head, invites her Companion with her glance. The way he answers with one of those smiles that only lift half a corner of the lips. A wolfish look, that. I would never wish for something so sordid directed at me.
But I am not Mistress.
The laundress chides me while we make the beds and bundle up the unwashed sheets. Why do I watch so attentively? What is it to me if Mistress dallies with her Swain? The laundress approves of words like "swain" and "dalliance." It sounds romantic to her.
True, I say. It is nothing at all to do with me.
I look still out the corners of my eyes. I am sensible, me.
I notice that Mistress hums softly to herself after the courier comes bearing news from far away, a letter undoubtedly tucked beneath more formal papers in her trunk. On the nights that her Paramour is in the house, she retires early. The candles gleam on her skin and hair. The fragrance of rose water fills the chamber. She flits about with the nervous excitement of a girl and sends us off before the last of our chores are finished.
The passages tucked behind the stairs are familiar to my feet even in the dark, and I can walk them without tripping or disturbing the household. It is not strange to be kept company by sounds and movements of guests behind the thin walls.
Sometimes, I hear things I ought not to hear. Secret sounds not meant for my ears.
Sometimes, only sometimes, I stand on the threshold of my own little room at the top of the house and look about. It is small, neatly swept, perfectly ordered even though I must share it with that dreadful laundress. Every corner of the bedsheet is tucked in and smoothed. The candle in my hand glares off the hard, bare surfaces of table and knitting stool and the trunk at the foot of the bed. The sheets are cold and stiff as I slip into them.
My life is suitable.