"Your main duties will be in the Nursery, but you'll be expected to help with other duties should the need arise. You'll be paid on the last Friday of the month and have the first Wednesday of every month off. Is that clear?"
"Yes, Sir." Bobbing a quick curtsy, the young woman in front of him lowers her head, hiding her eyes behind a waterfall of curls, which she has attempted to secure into a bun.
"I think that should be all then, Lucy. I'll ring for Mrs Woodrow to take you up to the Nursery. Good day." This last is said as he reaches for a bell.
"Good day, Sir." Lucy, knowing herself dismissed, curtsies once more and then lets herself out into the hall.
Mere moments later, a stout woman in her late thirties or perhaps early forties comes down the stairs. "You'll be the new maid, I presume."
"Yes, Ma'am. Lucy's my name."
"Very well. I'm Alice Woodrow, but you may call me Nanny. You'll be answering to me upstairs, though as you'll see, we tend to try to unite in the Nursery. Due to the circumstances, there isn't much of a hierarchy among us."
"What circumstances, Nanny?" Lucy is sure she shouldn't ask, but can't help herself. She always did have a strong sense of curiosity.
To her surprise, the older woman isn't angry with her. Instead, as they reach the first floor landing and turn towards the second, on their way to Lucy's new bedroom, she sighs. "How much do you know about the family you've come to work for, Lucy?"
"They have two children of their own, both girls, though there is a boy from the first marriage, currently away at school. He's twelve, almost thirteen, while the oldest daughter has just turned eight. The youngest will be three this October."
"That's right. Master David will be home for the summer in about three weeks' time. Miss Jessica is the oldest daughter and, while she has her moments of rebellion, like any child, she's reasonably obedient most of the time. No, it's Miss Alexandra you have to watch."
"The youngest? But she's not even three!"
"That doesn't matter. She may look like an angel, but she's not. Not at all. She's an absolute demon. You can't control her. Oh, it's true that when she's happy, she's the sweetest child you can imagine, but try to say no to her and she snaps. Instantly."
"Can't you discipline her?" Lucy, the eldest of eight siblings, can't imagine any child, no matter how young, being allowed to get away with behaviour like that. Nanny shakes her head in despair and hushes Lucy quickly.
"Don't let the Master and Mistress hear you say that. They dote on Miss Alexandra. We're not allowed to lay a hand on her. And Miss Alexandra tells her parents everything. The last person who did try to punish her was sent packing the next day. Oh, Kathy got a reference, at Miss Jessica's urging, but she wasn't paid the wages that were owing to her. Anyway, that's old history. It's time you met the girls. Come along."
Depositing her case on the end of the bed Nanny has shown her while they've been talking, Lucy pulls on her cap and hurries after Nanny to the lavish room at the end of the landing.
"You'll sleep on the same floor as the girls because Miss Alexandra is prone to nightmares. They're really just another way to get attention, but it will still be your duty to go to her at night. Understood?"
Lucy nods and then Nanny opens the door to the Nursery.
Two girls are sitting cross-legged on the floor, playing dolls together. The oldest, who is clearly dressing a doll for a grand party at her sister's urging, is fairer than the younger one; conventionally prettier, yet not quite as striking. Miss Alexandra, who looks up and smiles at Lucy as she enters, already looks as though her golden-brown hair and high cheekbones will open every door for her when she's older. Particularly coupled with that charming smile that melts Lucy's heart at once.
Nanny clears her throat. "Miss Jessica, Miss Alexandra, this is your new Nursery Maid, Lucy."
"How do you do?" Jessica lays the doll aside and gets up to greet Lucy, no hint of haughtiness in her manner whatsoever. Lucy curtsies quickly and smiles back at the girl.
"I'm very well, thank you, Miss Jessica."
"Miss Jessica, you'd better get ready for Imogen's party. It starts at three." Nanny interposes, one wary eye on Alexandra, obviously hoping that she won't choose now to kick up a fuss.
She is lucky. Though Alexandra's face crumples at being deprived of her playmate, her gaze alights on Lucy before she can start crying. Scrambling up as her sister goes to get changed, she runs to take Lucy's hand and drag her towards the dolls scattered over the floor.
"You play, Lucy. Play Balls with me. Please?"
Despite herself, Lucy kneels to pick up the doll Jessica has discarded. "What's this one called, Miss Alexandra?"
"Rosalyn. And that one Holly. Mine Buttercup."
"That's a pretty name."
At that, Alexandra rewards Lucy with another blazing smile. The two of them start playing and Alexandra is soon so engrossed in the game that she barely even notices when Jessica, now resplendent in a dress of green sprigged muslin, bends to brush her head with her lips as she leaves.
The trouble starts when Nanny says to Alexandra "Let's get you changed and brush your hair so that you can go down and see your Mama, Miss Alexandra."
It is as Alexandra gets to her feet that she looks around for her elder sister and fails to find her.
"Nanny, where Jessa?"
Her little voice is thin, unsure. Glancing at Lucy warningly, Nanny replies "Miss Jessica's not here at the moment. She's gone to her friend Imogen's house for a party."
"Not here? Jessa not here?"
"No, Miss Alexandra. She'll be back after you've had your tea. Come on, it's time to brush your hair."
Nanny reaches for the toddler's hand, but Miss Alexandra pulls away violently, throwing herself to the floor in a tantrum.
"No! Not fair! Want Jessa! Jessa!"
As she screams, she tears at her plaits, wrenching them apart, winding her hands through the remnants; reducing her golden-brown hair to a tangled mess.
"Miss Alexandra, please!" Nanny attempts to reason with the child, but she is drowned out by Alexandra's screams of "No go down! Jessa! Not fair! Jessa!"
Lucy does the first thing that comes into her head. Ignoring the flailing limbs and the painful kicks that she and Nanny are being subjected to, she pulls the sobbing girl on to her lap and begins to sing, rocking Alexandra gently back and forth as though she is her own little sister.
"All through the sultry hours of June,
From morning blithe to golden noon,
And till the star of evening climbs
The gray-blue East, a world too soon,
There sings a Thrush amid the limes."
Startled by the fact that Lucy is not desperately trying to soothe her and make her see reason, the way everyone else around her always does, Alexandra gradually begins to quieten, twisting to bury her face in Lucy's skirts as she weeps; weeps less and less passionately. Lucy keeps singing as though nothing out of the ordinary is happening.
"God's poet, hid in foliage green,
Sings endless songs, himself unseen;
Right seldom come his silent times.
Linger, ye summer hours serene!
Sing on, dear Thrush, amid the limes."
At the sound of the question, Lucy breaks off her song and glances down at the child in her lap, who has raised her head to look at her enquiringly.
"Yes, Miss Alexandra? What's the matter?"
"I want own party. Can I have party like Jessa?"
Wet-eyed and pink-cheeked with emotion, little Alexandra is as pretty as a picture. Even having just seen what a terror she can be, Lucy can't imagine anyone who would be able to gainsay the two-year old. But she is not going to be drawn into making promises that she can't keep.
"You'll have to ask your Mama about that, Miss Alexandra. But she'll be more likely to say yes and give you what you want if you look nice when you ask her. So let's brush your hair and change your dress, hmm?"
There is a moment of hesitant silence; Nanny and Lucy hold their breath. Then, suddenly, the toddler nods and slips her hand trustingly into Lucy's.
Lucy stands outside the Mistress's sitting room, Alexandra in her arms, waiting for the signal to go in. When the other maid, Mary, comes out and nods briefly, she walks in, keeping her head respectfully low, as she can't curtsy whilst holding the youngest daughter of the house.
"Mama!" Alexandra crows in delight and squirms in Lucy's arms. Freed from their constraint, she runs over to her mother and giggles joyfully as she is swept up into a warm embrace.
"You may go." The Mistress looks up from her daughter's happy kisses just long enough to dismiss Lucy, before turning back to her daughter. "Tell Mama what you've been up today, darling. Have you been good for Nanny?"
At that, Lucy wants to laugh with derision, so decides to hurry from the room before her self-control breaks.
The last thing Lucy hears as she leaves is Alexandra saying "Mama, I want party. Can I have party? Please?" and her mother's indulging chuckle. Mary, who is just outside, hears it too and the two of them share an exasperated look as they fall into step beside each other.
"What did we tell you? The Mistress dotes on Miss Alexandra." Mary touches Lucy's arm. "I pity you, having to work in the Nursery. At least I work downstairs most of the time. I can stay out of her way."
Not knowing what to say to that, Lucy just smiles and walks on, hurrying up the stairs, intent on reaching her little room before Nanny can waylay her. If she's quick, she might even be able to scribble a note to her family before she has to fetch Alexandra back from downstairs. Her parents can't read, but her brother Sammy can. He can read it to them and write back to her for them. Maybe her mother will have some ideas on how Lucy can handle her new charges.