“We will begin with the natural hills and their desperate inhabitants in the early dark years, those for whom the manor provided a figurehead toward which they might till the hills and cultivate the begrimed and rustic exuberance budding inside them, which would grow into high regard and loyalty to this home, the Earldom of P—”
“We should begin with the present.”
“That sounds awful.” Thurry convulses in a hyperbole of a visible shudder. He has been reading too many novels this morning.
We wait to settle into our usual tremors and flatus before we continue.
“In beginning with the present, iron and cement, et cetera, we will illustrate through contrast the beauty of farmed fields, fallow fields, formal gardens, the lawns spreading once more from the trampled foot of the manor, the manor straightening once more into blue skies. It is important that these images appear attainable, and we must therefore begin in realism. The audience might grasp on to the images of once more and around them form alternate models for the future. We could effect or at least sow the seeds for a reversal.”
“The current model being skyscrapers? You would identify it as such, Rosamond?”
“Thurry, we must be aware of our audience.”
We turn our faces toward opposite walls, one toward the portraits of our forebears, the other toward the open window through which the acrid smell of production has begun to seep, as it does every morning. We are constantly appalled by the failures of Harriet, our maid-of-all-work.
“Maid-of-all-work” is a carelessly compressed and impossible term. A home this size cannot be managed by one employee. When we were children, twenty-three kept warm and bustling residence under our floors. As younger adults, we employed no fewer than seventeen.
Harriet has been hired on impossible terms, but still she might attend to the windows.
“Servants’ quarters are a coffeehouse now,” says Harriet.
We tell her even a maid-of-all-work should not be allowed to retort. Especially a maid-of-all-work, who should be too busy to gather her vitriol. She flaps her paper in a motion as white and irreverent as her plump derrière, knowing she might as well have bent over to bare it before us. We are trying to write an address to the people, and she must transcribe.
Our special historical knowledges have been solicited for the opening of the museum tomorrow afternoon. We have only just been informed of our important role, and that our address it will be read by a skilled young orator early in the proceedings.
“I thought you two were just bickering,” says Harriet.
“Composition is an art of process. We are identifying the seeds of our argument. How are we to organize our ideas if you have not recorded lists or at least rough representational charts?”
“It’s supposed to be two hundred words.”
“You have no interest in rhetoric!” Thurry strikes the arm of the fourth Earl of P—’s chair and a puff of velvet dust rises. We all glare through the dust. Harriet is not to be relied upon. We chose the furniture from the fourth Earl’s personal bedchamber for our old age because it is exceedingly soft and comforts us, but it takes Thurry long moments to rest his jittering hand on the cushion again.
Harriet nods. “No time for interests, I’m a maid-of-all-work.”
For a while Harriet draws something out on the paper and the room is filled with small mutterings: “ethos,” “logos,” “panache.”
“This Earldom may one day be the last haven of good and natural candlelight.” Thurry waits to make sure Harriet has begun to transcribe. “Candlelight has a quality that no electric mechanism can reproduce. That is history. Our life has been lit with that strong glow, and we are proud to preserve it for your children and their children before them, ad infinitum.”
“Not ad infinitum. They will hear the Latin as excessive.”
“Dear Rosamond, how are we to live in this world?”
We turn for another moment away from each other, brother toward the sideboard empty of meats and sister toward the ornate stopped clock, the best china, the piano, and the assorted dinner garments we requested be brought up to our chambers when we retained more influence over the comings and goings in and of the manor. It clutters up the private breakfast room, but they have declared us too ancient to risk walking from room to room, and they deposited the clock, china, piano, and dinner garb after they set us up in the fourth Earl’s chairs and dragged in our beds.
Each of our beds took six large men to move. We held our heads high to show we recognized this reparation for the injustice done to us. Rosamond and Thurry, heirs to the Earl of P—, feel few damaging slights, but we are both too large of person and persona to share the private breakfast room for all our sitting, sleeping, breakfast, tea, dinner, baths, and tending to our nether-businesses.
Thurry creates a great rumble in the depths of his chair, as if to illustrate our point. We cough politely. We take a moment to remember where we were, and whether we have begun.
“It gratifies us to bestow our home upon you ladies and gentlemen gathered—”
“They are not,” says Thurry through another great cloud of velvet dust.
“We must use the colloquialism of the day. Pathos.”
“Ethos,” says Thurry.
“It gratifies us to bestow our home upon all of you, piddling, impecunious, gobbling tinpot philistine boors. Please take your pick of our rooms to drag your doggish arses through.”
“We are only warming up. Composition is a process.”
Harriet is writing speedily now, the left half of her bottom lip wrenched up purple between her teeth. She is unattractive, this maid-of-all-work. We must remember our tall and handsome footmen who matched like marble bookends and used our proper titles, and we must comfort ourselves with this memory. Harriet releases her lip to form a silent “impecunious,” and we wait for her to make a stab at the spelling so we might carry on.
“We might form the speech within bookends. Begin with the manor, mention the skyscrapers, and return to the manor. This way the form of our address would stay true to the way the skyscrapers pop up and jut through the middle of our lives, monstrously.” It takes time for Thurry to revise his plans.
“They aren’t skyscrapers,” says Harriet.
We really must not be derailed. The replacement clock they will have ordered for the museum is ticking along, if ours is not. We nod or scowl at Harriet until she bows over her page again.
“Our library has been one of the richest since the first Earl, a man of great knowledge and charity, filled its shelves. Every Earl since that admirable man has gathered more knowledge and built more shelves—”
“Had them built.”
“—for the dual pursuits of learning and pleasure, and we are grateful for the opportunity we are now given to open these timeless pursuits up for you.”
“Learning and pleasure,” says Harriet.
We hold our chins high in our very soft chairs.
“They’re dismantling the library for a video theater.”
We must admit to overturning the side table. There is nothing fragile on top, and it does not travel far. It wobbles slightly; we use both hands and engage our knees, and it lands with a not unemphatic crack.
The effect of the side table turned actually on its side, its stiff legs bowed like those of a dead horse or the legs we imagine a dead horse to have, for we know little about death, reminds us of that inevitability nonetheless. Thurry reaches out his hand toward the end table, our window, the buildings shading our window, or his dear overstimulated sister.
“We will take tea early,” we say. “We will take tea and Scotch.”
Harriet rifles through the sideboard cupboards.
We clear our throats.
“There’s just tea left. You used up your stipend last week.”
“What,” says Thurry, “is a stipend.”
There will be times when we must employ our influence as leverage. These times have come. “You will take one of these artifacts downstairs and trade it for liquor of some variety.”
Harriet grins at us, showing many teeth. She puts her pencil down her top and chooses the best dinner gown of the eighth Lady of P—, who was in truth a scandalmonger and of little substantial benefit to the Earldom in her time. If we can help her service the manor posthumously, we should.
The maid-of-all-work brings back twelve bottles of wine and a kitten.
It will do, we decide. Harriet may even keep one of the bottles as a bonus to her pay, for where would we be now without her and her functioning legs?
“In the private breakfast room,” we agree.
Still, she has improved the setting, which is a synonym for the function of a maid-of-all-work. We wait for a moment in high hopes but find ourselves forced to remind her of her position. She retrieves her pencil, shaking her head. Perhaps there is a great gnat buzzing about her ears, with which we might sympathize. Perhaps in bringing the kitten to her face to kiss it, she sucked a tuft or piece of fur into her nose, and she knows it would be impolite to sneeze and can think of no other remedy for it than to shake her head profusely and roll her eyes around.
“They found him when they were cleaning out the smoking room,” Harriet says. “All those ghastly deer heads fallen on the floor and he was eating their skins and curling up to sleep in them, happy with himself and sardonic as you please.”
The kitten mews. Harriet shows him his tail, and he bites it.
“There were rabbits too. But you two were beginning your memoirs?”
“The pastoral today does not roll out in a patterned carpet from the foot of the manor but turns back on it, pushing its tendrils through mortar and wedging itself to crumble the bricks of our home,” says Thurry. His face turns quite white and dark red intermittently.
We take a moment for reflection in which Thurry might remember to breathe.
We correct Harriet. “We were beginning an address to a particular audience for which we must tailor our rhetorical strategies. Let us review the rhetorical situation. Authors, the son and daughter of the late—”
“The last,” corrects Harriet.
“—Earl of P—. Subject, the opening of the museum in the main rooms of this manor. Audience, the stinkpot visitors–”
“The arts and history council.”
“The council founded and funded at the expense of the manor, through our charity!”
“Occasion, the opening of that museum. Purpose, reclamation and the reshaping of attitudes.” We fold our hands on my lap and look around the room with pursed or sagging lips to locate any reminders of points we have forgotten. Harriet, we are proud to see, has drawn a triangle on her paper and is labeling the points. The kitten micturates in the shelter of the end table.
“Tell me,” says Thurry, “how are the gardens?”
This is a defeatist impulse. “We will name the kitten Pas de Fin,” we interrupt.
“Have they been suffocated in the laying of concrete or have they perhaps with the rabbits and wild cats overgrown?”
“Here, kitty kitty Pas de Fin. Come to Lady Rosy-Rosamond.”
The kitten climbs into Harriet’s fat lap and folds himself neatly.
“For the banners of purple loosestrife streaming from the roof in the sunshine were like the triumphant flags of nature herself, staking her claim to the building, in its ruins—”
“Hold your tongue, Thurry!” We are distracted; we are furious. “We need not read so many novels nor tire our poor Harriet’s hand with quotes from them, especially when they are so new and untested as that, and written with such burgundy and overblown fatalism.”
“What do we have in this world that is not overblown and saturated with all manners of sanguinary hues?” Thurry tosses his hand toward the northeastern corner of our private breakfast room, where the crimson brocade chosen by the sixth Earl of P— to paper the walls peels down in great swaths to reveal deposits of fulvous powder streaked wetly red, as if truly with blood.
“We are not in a novel.”
“We are the concluding volume of a verbose serial, and they have decided to adapt us to film!”
“How terrible,” we agree. This judgment rings through the breakfast room. There passes a general convulsion by which even Pas de Fin is afflicted, and then we take care to straighten ourselves once more, to rub the soft arms of the fourth Earl’s chairs and sip quickly our wine, so we might be fortified.
Harriet makes another round with the bottle.
“Share our wealth with the young, the emblem of our future,” we declare, so Harriet fills a tea plate for the kitten. He sniffs it, recoils, and bats it with his paw. Pas de Fin licks his haunches and tracks claret across the rug.
We cannot pretend to be unaffected. Thurry slumps into an aged pile, his elbows in the hollows of his legs, his hands full of wrinkles and weeping.
The Earl of P— is entitled to wear a coronet adorned with eight matched pearls and eight golden strawberry leaves. We have kept this ornament in velvet tucked into the great dead clock where it could not be requisitioned by the arts and history council. Thurry decides he will wear it for tea.
It sinks halfway down his forehead and makes indented lines above his eyebrows and ears. He requests that Harriet right the side table and wipe it down. He has her open the next two bottles of wine. He desires almond scones with cream and repeats this request obstinately, even though the private breakfast room has no adequate oven, and since she was hired Harriet has only made sandwiches with ingredients that will keep at the temperature of the private breakfast room.
Harriet shakes her finger at Thurry and leaves the room; we are afraid we have done it, we have dismissed our maid-of-all-work in the season of fewest applicants and now all the work will remain undone, but after another half-bottle of claret, which is immature and provokes much confabulation about the correlations between age and value, Harriet returns with a paper bag from the coffeehouse in the servants’ quarters. Coffee of P— the bag reads, but the rest of the appellation has been soaked through with grease.
The maid-of-all-work has found cinnamon scones, and we get our first taste of the commodity the Earldom threatens to—
“Has,” says Harriet.
—become. The scones are slightly dry. For many years we would have showed our courteous appreciation nonetheless, but under the present circumstances we find it challenging not to smack our lips and guzzle our claret between floury nibbles. Be them as they may, our refreshments fill the function for which they are named, and even our brother appears to unfurl like a dewy if doddering flower.
“Ladders and gem-thief-men,” Thurry addresses the private breakfast room and Harriet, whom he rushes with fluttering his hands to pick up her pencil and paper. “My dear boozepots and muffinbottoms, do you feel in the depths of yourselves the weight of the walls around you pinning you lovingly here to these carpets, and beyond them, to the very soil of these hills? Do you feel yourself able to return to your homes at the end of this address, or have the tendrils and veins that comprise you reached their healthiest new growth outward, invisibly, down through the floor, so one step past that land which you are now linked, impassionedly, would rend you to threads and chords of amaranthine lament?”
“Boozepots and muffinbottoms,” we positively bellow. “Amaranthine lament.”
Pas de Fin has never heard a force so loud as us, to which downstairs hammering and the crudely barked jokes of workmen cannot compare. He sends up a thin orange howl not of a volume but certainly of a timbre befitting a mature jungle panther.
“He has after all grown up in the smoking room,” Harriet says.
“That was the sensation that overwhelmed one brave man, who dropped to his knees in the dirt of these hills spouting the promise that he would devote himself and his line, infinitely, to the cultivation and welfare of all that grew here, from the smallest sprout to the fathers who fed their children with it, and this man fed those children, built a church—”
“Had it built.”
“—allotted farms, provided salaries, and disseminated culture, all from the spot where you now stand, vandals and philistines, and it is this man whose line has continued to devote itself to his pledge, and we all owe our respects to each Earl who has carried this manor on his back, and to the Earldom’s remaining descendants, those who carry the last drops of blood identical in composition to the mineral wealth of the ground beneath us from which the walls around us were built with pride, the last blood of the first honored Earl of P—”
In our emphatics we knock the undrunk fourth bottle of wine into Thurry’s admittedly previously dampened lap; the coronet slides forward to rest on his nose and cover his eyes, and the kitten leaps mid-wail for the golden strawberry leaf in the middle of Thurry’s forehead, for it has caught the afternoon light between dank cement buildings and glittered for a second like prey or a toy. Harriet lets out a burst between guffaw and flatus, and then we are all scrabbling at the metal covering the Earl’s second son’s face; in losing his eyesight he seems to have forgotten other functions of his body as well and is turning quite purple, hacking and seizing.
Perhaps it was best for him to be cut off where he was. It feels right to let the name of our home hang transparent and fragmentary as the flickering apparition that it, and those for whom it was named, have become. “Let us not tie that name to this ruin, dear Thurry. Let it back away graciously, P—,” we agree. Pas de Fin settles down to an irregular purr.
We take some time to recuperate from our excitement. Harriet changes the pants on our quivering Thurry. He sleeps for a spell. Harriet sharpens one half of her broken pencil and sketches a competent study of the scene, except the proportions are drawn strangely. The towers in the windows are only as big as the late Earl’s heirs, but the kitten overfills the private breakfast room and has burst the locks to the adjoining chambers so he might comfortably spread his tail and paws.
There is a breeze from the factories to the east; it smells foul.
Still we recover our strength before the evening is out. Thurry stirs groggily, rubbing the bruises crowning his face. “There was the strangest sensation,” he says, “of the body disintegrating into the hills and the sky. There were dampening clouds and the squawking chicks of albatrosses.” He reaches for his empty cup and brings it up to his lips.
Harriet smudges the outline of his face with her thumb.
Katy Gunn is an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama with writing forthcoming from Quarterly West, Devil’s Lake, and Birkensnake.
“An old thing I would be: Jane Marple.”
Back to Issue 2: Old Things