Fresh Linen

It seemed strange for me to wish that I could wake to fresh linen every morning. When that had been the norm for me I had never considered nor appreciated it. It was natural for me to sleep in fresh linen, just as it was natural to me to have a maid ready to serve my whim. I did not think how these things came to be, to me they just were; as natural as night follows day.

Every morning there would be a maid waiting for me to ring the bell so she may bring me my cup of chocolate while I lay in bed and planned my day in advance. She would wait all day if I wished it, her entire day was dictated by my fancy. After she brought it to me she would move to the chest and while I sipped it she would pick out clothes at my direction, handling them so carefully you would think they were made of gold. Then he would help me dress and remind me of any engagements I had forgotten as she went and then when I was dressed I would take breakfast with my mother and sister. Papa was rarely there he would usually have left for work early, before even the servants had risen. At the breakfast table we would gossip about who we had seen the night before in some party or other, maybe Mama planned to have some ladies to visit in the evening and Marissa and I would be expected to come home early. We would do so without complaint and we were always a credit to Mama.

After breakfast Marissa and I would have the carriage brought round and the two of us would make a number of calls perhaps staying for lunch somewhere if invited or dining out if somewhere took our fancy. This was one of the many advantages to living in a town and one as promising as Bath. There were always new people to meet for their friends were forever inviting those they had met last season and we were always on the lookout for an eligible and promising young bachelor. Marissa was the prettier of us two and so she always had some gentleman or other after her favour. She toyed with each of their affections constantly, always looking out for someone better, someone richer. I doubted anyone would be rich enough for her; my beautiful, aspiring sister. It was a game for us. Every night she would come home with a dozen gifts or so as small favours hoping that the following day she might look on one of them with a warmer smile than they were used to. Mama told her to be careful and to choose carefully, Papa did not seem that interested in who she married for the moment as neither of us showed any preference for any suitor for the moment.

In time Papa started joining us for evenings out. His long hours supervising his work force were paying off at last and there were rumours that he had amassed a small fortune. Marissa and I smiled eagerly at each other with images of new gowns, sables, shoes, gloves and maybe another season in London. Mama smiled upon us approvingly as the dressmaker danced to our tune. Life couldn't be better.

Papa started staying out later and later and he would come home with alcohol on his breath and a deck of cards in his pocket. Mama said nothing about his sudden love of drinking and gambling, to be fair all the men were prone to drinking slightly too much port or brandy at parties and gambling was popular with them. She always taught us that the first duty of any wife was to indulge her husband in all things and to contradict him rarely or never if we could manage it. Marissa and I nodded dutifully, husbands for us were a matter of security anyway and as long as our monthly dress bills were met and we could afford to entertain on occasion then who were we to mind what our husbands did?

But as time went on not even Mama could heed her own advice. Cook came into the drawing room one day demanding wages. I had never seen my mother anything but perfectly happy or at the worst content but now she looked aghast. Marissa and I exchanged shocked glances, more astonished that the cook had the gall to walk into the drawing room. It later appeared that this grievance was not limited to Cook, none of our servants had received their wages. It was the first time I had heard a tone of urgency in Mama's voice as she dismissed Cook from her presence with promises of payment by nightfall. That afternoon when father returned home to change before joining some friends Mama greeted him with a tight lipped smile as she politely if it were at all possible, if he had somehow managed, if it had just slipped his mind, if he would not mind at all paying their servants for the quarter. None of us could have missed his face blanch white as he stuttered that his company of late had caused it to slip his mind and he would be certain to pay the staff their due.

The following day Papa took breakfast with us and informed us that he had sold the carriage and the horses as he felt that we would do better to walk, he did not wish us to get fat and idle being driven everywhere when we did precious little exercise. A stricken glance from Mama silenced the protests on the tip of Marissa's tongue and we bowed our heads to his wishes and said nothing.

I noticed that Mama advised us to start taking suitors seriously and I think it was then that we started to realise how our situation was not expected to improve anytime soon. Mama wanted to ensure that we were well cared for if Papa continued to lose as well as he had been recently. Marissa started wearing her very best gowns out to dinner and she no longer treated favours lightly. She was still on the lookout for the best of the best and sometimes I feared that not even royalty would be good enough for my darling sister. I was quite happy entertaining the suit of handsome heirs but most of all what I looked for in a suitor was security. Marissa always promised me that if she found a rich noble to marry then she would take me with her to his house as her lady companion and we should both benefit from her luck. I knew this to be true; Marissa would never abandon me but as Papa's losses became greater I wondered if by the time she had found a man to marry it would be too late for us.

The circles never once commented on father's losses. We were all still immaculately dressed in the most fashionable clothes of the time, our jewellery and finery glinted under the crystal chandeliers and we carried ourselves with the same grace and dignity we always had. They assumed that any losses father made he could afford and he would only return to the piquet tables to indulge his gentlemen friends. They could not know that we had dismissed all but two of our servants and we were creating our own gowns ripped down from older, less impressive ones.

But still we said nothing.

Mama confronted Papa occasionally about how far he was slipping but he called her a meddling old woman and told her to keep her nose out of his affairs. She relented and said but one more thing on the matter; she warned him not to bet the deeds to the house and he gave his word as a gentleman that he would not. She should have realised that his word was as fake as the imitation gold bracelets we wore.

By the end of the month we were at our wits end, with no servants, little good food, no new dresses and all this coinciding with the summer season when a crowd of new and engaging people came to the town and expected to be entertained by us. The gossip mongerers had a field day with us and everywhere Marissa and I went women would whisper behind their fans and men who had once fought each other for a smile from my pretty sister thought it best to retire to the brandy room for a cigar. We knew we were on our way out, it was as if we were standing on the edge of a vast precipice and though there was a great crowd around us not one person stood forward to help us.

Finally the fateful day came. Though it was morning I was asleep when a sound like a dying animal cut through my dreams and brought me to reality. I threw on my slip of a dressing gown and hurried downstairs closely followed by Marissa who, like me, had been woken by the unearthly screams. The two of us burst into the parlour and in horror saw that the sounds had been made my Mama who had sunk to the floor in hysterics as Papa stood over ashen faced and white. We knew then that our lives as the most eligible ladies in Bath were well and truly over.

We did not see Papa after that. He had indeed broken his word gambling away the deeds to the house as he had gambled everything else. I heard that he wasted the rest of his days spending whatever money he begged on drink and one more game; always one more game. Mama, Marissa and I were cast onto the streets with barely a penny to our name as Sir Robert Huntley who had once rejected all invites to dance with anyone but my lovely sister moved his staff in with barely a look at us, standing in the street looking up at what had once been the most sociable home in Bath.

My heart broke as I had to sell my most beautiful gowns and the jewellery that had once been showered on Marissa and I at our best. I could not stop my tears flowing when all our scrimping had rented us was a grotty room in an inn far from the glittering social circles who now snubbed us. The falseness of our friendships struck me for the first time as I realised that if I were in any of their positions I would probably pretend I had never once had Miss Marissa or Elizabeth Walker over for tea and I would probably conveniently forget all those times I had been running short at the dressmakers and taken a loan of a guinea for a pair of gloves that I simply must have.

Our change of home was not the worst blow cruel fate would deal us. After unpacking what small possessions we had managed to salvage Mama told us that we would have to work for a living. Marissa and I would have to go into service while she tried to find work as a seamstress. She had always found pleasure in embroidery but never had she thought she would have to turn a hobby in such a way. I remember the burning look of shame as Marissa and I first started applying for posts as maids trying desperately to avoid those places we had once frequented as sparkling socialites. And when they gave me my uniform, my pale grey uniform so drab and unappealing I wept again. I hated every moment of it and I knew that even if I spent a hundred years in servitude I should never have gotten used to it. This was not my world, this was not my place and I would sell my soul to the devil a hundred times over if he could just get me to where I belonged.

Marissa and I both got positions in the same household and were expected to live in the servant's quarters to ensure we were up early enough to take the lady of the house her tea. We worked half days on Thursday when the she would go out for the evening and would not need us til the following morning and were generously given Sundays off after we attended church with the household. On my days off I would return to my mother's lodgings with some food I had pegged from the Cook and watch her in silence as she struggled to create a pattern in the dying candlelight. Her eyesight was starting to fail through long hours spent sewing such delicate stitching by such poor lighting. I would sit with her and I like to believe that I was a source of comfort to her. Marissa on the other hand would beg her pardon and dress in her finest dress, one that she had saved from the bailiffs. She would ask me to pin up her hair and she would even have it powdered with powder she had stolen from the lady's room. The lady would not notice for the powder would be safely returned when she next went to use it. I had a feeling Marissa was dressing herself up in such ways to steal away to parties. She never spoke of it to me for she knew I would say, in my weary tone, that playing dress up would not return us to that world. Even I had to admit though that she did look ravishing. There was something else striking about her; determination. She was completely determined to regain her status somehow. I was not foolish enough to follow these pipe dreams though I would hold the lady's gowns and long for the feel of new silk against my skin, or the days when I would no longer have to wake at dawn to ensure the lady would have her tea on time, or when I would not sleep on an old straw bed but in fresh linen, pressed and starched for my comfort.

Mama died some years after we had lived like this. We were forced to give her a pauper's burial as near to the family plot as we could; even in death we were outcasts. Mama had left us what money she had saved through her work, we saw now that where she should have been buying food for herself she had been cutting back buying only what she needed to survive so that she might leave Marissa and I enough to buy something nice. We couldn't even afford a flower to throw on her grave. Instead we picked a posy from the flowerbeds that lined the churchyard and knew that she would appreciate our effort.

Life became repetition for me then. Marissa would still go out to her parties in the same dress which she was constantly altering or making additions to and somehow every time she wore it, it looked like a different gown. I could imagine a young gentleman asking her why she always wore the same colour to which she would lower her eyelashes in that seductive manner she had mastered and say, "Don't you think it suits me?"

Then a year after Mama had died I fell in love.

I had never known love before. In my world of the socialite and eligible heiress men would profess their eternal love to me all the time but there was never any truth to it. I was little more to them than a trophy wife who would fill their nursery and give them the much needed heir to their estate. At best I would bring a handsome dowry. For a while I refused to acknowledge the feelings that would not leave me be every time I saw him. His name was Richard and he had taken a position as the doorman to the house where I worked. He would only be there for the season where he would simply stand at the door and offer to take a lady's coat when she entered.

He courted me at its basest level. He would leave a flower in a basket he knew I would use that day. He would offer to walk me through the park in the evenings when Marissa would vanish even though he would have but an hour before his own work started. I found a simple delight in the courtship of two servants as it would never be as artificial as that of my old world. Sometimes I would even let him kiss me and it was always so much more tender than the perfunctory kisses of the gentry. I knew that he loved me and he knew I loved him in return. Sometimes he would talk of marriage but the thought frightened me. I never once gave him a direct answer to his proposals for though I loved him heart and soul to say yes would be to resign myself to a life where I would be little more than a chamber maid. I tried to explain this to him, to tell him of how I longed for the life I had once had, the days filled with meaningless social calls, the false flirtations, the stream of gifts and most of all I wanted to wake up to fresh linen and a cup of chocolate. He did not understand; how could he? He had never been a part of that world, he saw it from the doorman's perspective; a world where nobody really cared for each other and everything was so artificial and insincere. It didn't make much sense, it was hardly a good world to be a part of but still it was my world and I refused to marry him thus committing myself to a world of servitude forever.

He refused to leave me be which I suppose I was thankful for. I wanted him in my life but I could not stomach the thought of being little more than the wife of a doorman. But how I did love him. Sometimes I would cry for the man I loved but would never truly have and yet I would not have forsaken the chance to rejoin the life of the affluent for anything, even for the only man I had ever loved.

Then one day, the thing I dreamed of rang true. Marissa had been out all night as was her custom but this time she came running into our quarters with the first true smile I had seen on her face since we had first come to this misfortune. "I've done it!" she practically screamed and she held out her left hand to me, there on her wedding finger was a diamond engagement ring. For a moment I choked on my own breath; it was a diamond, a true diamond! I looked at her, wide eyed awaiting an explanation, "I am betrothed to Sir Henry Lack, the son of Lord Lack! Elizabeth we need not work any longer. I have told Henry that I wished to be married as soon as possible and publicly! I want them all to see that we are no longer in the gutter. And you Elizabeth! You shall come with me as a companion as I always promised you! And we shall live in London and…and…" words failed her as they did me; we were both so ecstatic at the change in our fortunes. She handed in our notice at once and we were both to move to Sir Henry's townhouse even though the deed was not done yet. Marissa was to have an allowance paid immediately to serve her for the wedding. As her companion Sir Henry was kind enough to pay me a small allowance also. When I saw the bill with my name on it and the figure beneath it I do believe I screamed. I had not seen such money for so long I had forgotten that this was actually nothing spectacular and was quite a modest sum. It did not take us long to prepare for the move, I bought a new gown so I may be presented to Sir Henry but we were careful to leave everything else in the servant's quarters and we would never speak of this dark chapter of our lives not even to each other.

Before I left I sought out Richard. His dark eyes lit up when he saw me and no doubt he thought I had come to my senses and was agreeing to marry after all this time for I had never come looking for him like this before. When he heard my words however the brightness from his eyes dimmed and faded and his face fell. I think my own joy faltered when I saw his face as black as thunder, "Come with me," I said in a small voice, "then we can be married and we shall live as respectable people not pauper scum!"

"Oh Lizzie," he had sighed, shaking his head, "I am pauper scum," he spoke without humour and a part of me had always known that he would not have come with me. He said sincerely, "I love you and I ask you…don't go, stay here with me and make home here. We can be happy you and I, just us and our love." Part of me, a very, very small part of me longed dearly to say, 'yes' and throw myself into his arms and we would laugh at my folly and we would be happy. But I could not. I could not stomach being a working woman, not when I was born to so much better.

"I cannot," I said quietly, feeling my heart break as I said it. He closed his eyes and turned away from me.

"Then you leave me," he said simply, "and I will still love you."

I wanted to tell him the same, that I loved him and would always do so but my throat was dry and I felt as though I would choke on those words, however true they were. I never saw him in person again, though for the rest of my life, whenever I felt lonely or enveloped in my artificial world I would see his face in my dreams and long for the time when his simple love was all that mattered.

I was presented to Sir Henry that very afternoon. Marissa and I both went shopping and I admit we spent far more than intended as we bought all the latest trends and styles. I bought a modest gown to meet my brother in law while Marissa chose a revealing number so her future husband could see he was getting his moneys worth. Sir Henry was pleasant and either didn't know or chose to ignore our dubious pasts. Not a word was spoken about our lack of possessions or the fact that nobody had seen me in high society before. That night there was an engagement party and many of our old friends were there. They either treated us as though we were new to town or had never been away from these circles to begin with. I did not care; I was giddy on more than sweet champagne.

Everything was so lively and vibrant. This world was one of colour and I had never before appreciated how beautiful a party could be with a dozen or so women in dazzling gowns that caught the light in a hundred ways as they twirled across the room. Nor had I ever truly seen how elegant the gentlemen looked in their dark suits and perfectly starched shirts pristine as ever. Everything about me was bursting with energy and I was a part of it as I should always have been.

Marissa had her public wedding as she wanted and she held her head high as if it was her right to look down on all the gathered who whispered behind gloves or fans about how she was a jumped up guttersnipe who was saved by Sir Henry. None of them approved of course but none of them spoke a word to our face. Not that it mattered for we were in London by the end of the week.

Sir Henry had a beautiful town house in Kensington Square which rivalled even our own back in Bath. Both Marissa and I had our own maid and the dressmaker would come once a month to fit us for the new styles. Sir Henry would not have his pretty bride and her companion walk around in anything less than the newest fashions. I sank back into my old life as though I had never left it. Marissa and I were greeted into London society with open arms; Lord Lack even arranged for us to be presented at court. Our stars had never risen so high. I accompanied Marissa everywhere, to all the best parties, to meet all the finest people. She was a credit to her husband; she looked beautiful on his arm and she never once gave him cause to complain. If she was to flirt she did it tastefully and only where it was due, she spent well within her allowance and never once complained to her husband about anything. To everyone else she was the model wife and only I could see that her restraint was so that she should never be poor again. She never forgot that it was Sir Henry who saved her from the gutter but it was Sir Henry who could put her back there if he tired of her.

And me?

I woke every morning in fresh linen. There was a maid waiting for my call allowing her to bring my chocolate to me. Everywhere I went I was showered with complements and suits from gentlemen hoping to marry into the great Lack family. I loved every moment of it, I relished the attention and I revelled in my restoration to this world. Yet there were little things; every time I heard the maid's bell ring I would rise to my feet hastily before I realised that it was not meant for me and I should never wait on anyone again. I managed to save a small fortune from my allowance as I spent sparingly, never quite being able to get out of the habit of saving. Let me not forget the most obvious, the most important. Every time a gentleman begged my favour, presented a gift or told me that I was more beautiful than Diana herself; I thought back to him, the only man who had ever called me beautiful and meant it. Even at my happiest I could not help but long and yearn for his gentle kisses, the way he would leave me small and inexpensive gifts to find in the course of my day or the way he smiled even if I had just crossed the room he happened to be in.

I married of course and I married well. But in my husband I could only see the face of my one true love. Even after this lifetime of luxury, this world of beauty and vitality, this paradise, I felt that I should never have given him up for the vain fancy of waking up to fresh linen.