Two days in some minds might not be a long time. In my mind it was an eternity. I continuously rode one wave of sheer terror and then another of sheer ecstasy, and experienced a sea of every emotion in between.
In my saner moments I had practical concerns. What should I wear to this dinner? I couldn't show up in my maid's dress, it was just too drab for words. Fortunately my wages were plentiful enough that after sending the majority to mother, I had put aside a little each week into a small embroidered money purse in my drawer. I now had the small fortune of one pound, five shillings and thruppence, more than enough to buy a dress at the market.
So on the Saturday morning of the rendezvous, I asked Maggie if I could visit the butchers for her, since she always had a roast of some sort planned for Saturday. To my surprise, Maggie said that she was spending the evening at her sister’s, so she wouldn't be cooking, but I could pick up some flowers at the market if I liked. Apparently Mr Donne had specifically requested fresh flowers for this evening.
My heart leapt, these two things in themselves, Maggie out for the evening and flowers for Jasper, meant that it certainly seemed as if the evening were to take place. I had had my doubts, but it looked as if he was managing to engineer it.
Cautiously I enquired about Sebastian. “And Father Fannon, will he be requiring supper this eve?”
“Ah no,” said Maggie, deftly gutting a fresh fish as she spoke, “The Father is visiting the next village for a bible session with some of the local lads, and then staying overnight with a friend. He'll be back tomorrow morn'. So it'll just be you and Mr. Donne tonight.”
There was a silence. She looked at me, and I felt my face go redder than it normally was.
“Don't mind 'im, he's easy enough to please. Just give him some toast and some of this fish.” She picked up a large knife and brought it down on the fish in one loud banging stroke, effectively cutting off its head, “That should do 'im.” Feeling queasy, I backed out of the kitchen.
It was bitterly cold when I stepped outside, grey clouds were scudding across the sky but the sun shone for the most part. I quickly wrapped my shawl around my head and set off. As I walked along with Maggie’s coins jingling in my pocket, I thought about the impossibility of the house's main occupants, Maggie and Sebastian, both being out on this very night. It had to be Jasper, he had to have organised it somehow and this knowledge eased away some of my doubts.
At the town market, some late flowering sweet peas were for sale, so I bought a bunch of white ones for my basket. I considered red roses but didn't want to be too presumptuous. The dress was harder as I found I didn't have enough money for a new one.
Finally, I found something I could afford in the Saturday morning rag fair in the narrow cobbled lane next to the parish church. On a trestle table under a pile of clothing I found a day skirt made of light blue wool with a faded navy velvet lining round the hem coming away in patches. But I could fix that up with no trouble. I was still no beauty but it should fit me well, and it was better than a maid's uniform.
Back at the house the rest of the day passed in a dream. I had seen neither hide nor hair of Jasper all day so I had no idea what he was doing about dinner. The thought of him in the kitchen cooking up a storm made me smile. Perhaps he was transporting it here on silver platters in horse-drawn carriages? That was too unbelievable even for my vivid imagination.
As it turned half past 6 o’clock then 7 o’clock and Maggie and Sebastian had both left somewhere in between, my stomach started churning with nerves. I paced my chamber wringing my hands in despair. The thought of sitting across a table from Jasper making polite conversation was incredible. Was it really going to happen? I felt like I might faint from expectation.
At a quarter to 8 o’clock I put on my new-old blue skirt with its carefully repaired hem, a clean white blouse and laced up my best green bodice. I sat on my bed and looked at myself in the mirror suddenly feeling foolish and very weary.
Who did I think I was? Just some lowly housemaid. I wasn't good enough to have dinner with someone of Jasper's breeding and status. I felt like crying. But then I remembered my father, and how he used to look at me with such pride in his eyes and tell me what a good girl I was, and how much he loved me. I squared my shoulders and tied my hair back with his ribbon. I might only be a blacksmith's daughter, but I had survived the pox, and I had the scars to show it.
It was 8pm. I crept out of my chamber and went downstairs. The house was dark and very quiet. I made my way to the dining room. A soft light flickered from underneath the door. I imagined many lit candles would make such a light. The intoxicating fragrance of orange and honey from the sweet peas drifted to my nose, and in my mind’s eye I saw the white flowers as the centerpiece of the table, which was laid with the good linen cloth and set for two with polished silverware.
Hardly daring to breathe, I opened the door and went in. Incredibly, it was just as I'd imagined. Candles had been lit and placed around the room giving off a soft yellow glow, and in the centre of the room a table was set for two with the good linen and silver cutlery. The flowers I was mistaken about. The sweet peas were on the sideboard. In the centre of the table was a glass vase holding a single red rose.
There was no sign of Jasper. I went to the table and sat down. I listened. Nothing but the hiss and spit of the candles and the trees rustling outside in the wind. After a good ten minutes I was getting restless. Where was he? Then I heard two carriages coming up the driveway. Was he really transporting the dinner?
I smoothed my skirt, waiting. But then I heard a woman's voice outside. Had he also brought a serving maid? Footsteps came to the front door and entered the hallway. I heard a woman's high-pitched laugh and a man say something. I recognised it as being Jasper.
Suddenly I had a strong sense that I shouldn't be here. I went hot, then cold. This was bad, very bad. But I had no time to do anything.
The door opened and in came Jasper with a young woman who was dressed in a tight-laced gold silk gown with frothy white sleeves. Her beauty took my breath away. She had shining blonde hair swept up in some complicated hairstyle I could never in my life hope to imitate, and a flawless ivory complexion. Diamonds glinted in her ears and glimmered from the jewel encrusted necklace at her swan-like throat.
“Ah Mercy,” said Jasper smiling at me guilelessly, “This is Arabella de la Croix. Arabella, this is Mercy, our maid who will be serving us this evening”.
My heart plummeted to my toes at his words, but I took care not to move a muscle on my face. Arabella looked at me with piercing blue eyes and she didn't say hello. I saw her note every pock-mark on my face and her small nose wrinkled with disapproval.
“Then why, pray tell,” she said frowning “Is she sitting at our table?”
Jasper's eyes glinted mischievously. “I can’t say,” he said. “Perhaps she decided to keep the seat warm for you, she's good for things like that. Mercy, we'd like our entrée now, please. Arabella my dear, why don't you be seated?”
I got up slowly and watched Arabella flounce over, settle herself in my seat and arrange her mass of golden skirts. I was so shocked by the turn of events I couldn't say a word. I just stood there and kept staring at Jasper, who must've felt the weight of my gaze but didn't flinch once. He fetched some madeira out of the sideboard and poured two glasses. When he sat down, he finally looked at me.
“What, Mercy? Am I not paying you enough for this little extra service? I think you'll find I am when you go into the kitchen”. Arabella whispered something and he chuckled, “No she's not simple, she's actually becoming very well educated, Sebastian's made sure of that. I'll tell you about it over our entrée when it finally arrives. By the way Mercy, when you go can you take these flowers with you? They're giving me a headache”.
I slid out of the room with all the energy of an earthworm, clutching the vase of sweet peas under my arm. I left the two of them alone, Arabella whispering secrets and Jasper gazing adoringly into her sapphire eyes.