Upon leaving the dining room I almost ran into two smartly dressed footmen in dark blue and gold livery, who had been busily transferring silver cloches to the kitchen.
“Dinner for the lady and master,” said one, bowing his powdered head courteously in my direction and then they took their leave. I heard the faint crunching of carriage wheels on the gravel outside.
As soon as I entered the kitchen and saw all the gleaming silver cloches my heart sank. Jasper had outdone himself by enlisting the help of some upper class cook, and unfortunately it wasn't with me in mind. I tentatively lifted the cover of the nearest dish, which contained some kind of fragrant white soup, creamy and rich-looking. My own appetite suddenly disappeared entirely. I considered not going through with it but I knew I had to, it was my duty as a maid.
From the dining room came gales of mirth from Arabella. Perhaps he was telling her the amusing tale of my education? Or of my background. My poor humble background. Where people like me weren't able to escape the horrors of smallpox because we had no country house to hole up in when there was an epidemic. We just had to live through it and put up with people’s condemnation afterwards. And then work as servants for the rest of our lives.
I looked at my face, which was reflected in one of the serving dishes. And then looked again. A cruel trick of the light had blocked out the worst of the scars so the face looking back at me was smooth and unmarked. I looked almost normal. This was how I was meant to look, not the monster the pox had made me.
My confidence rose. Perhaps I could get through this if I kept that image of myself in my head. The one that was every bit as beautiful as Arabella. I grabbed the dish containing the soup and carried it into the dining room.
“Ah Mercy, finally!” said Jasper rising and taking the dish from me, “We thought you'd decided to eat the entrée yourself”. Arabella snickered.
“Of course not,” I said, “I was just organising things in the kitchen. Would you like some more wine?”
I grabbed the bottle and sloshed it into their glasses, managing to spray a few drops dangerously close to Arabella's ample powdered bosom.
“Watch it, servant!” she snarled, and dabbed delicately at her cleavage. Jasper looked amused.
“Now, now, darling, be nice”, he soothed, “Let me feed you some soup, that should cheer you up.”
He scooped up some of the soup and put it into Arabella's waiting open mouth. I could hardly bear to watch as her tongue flickered out and licked the end of the spoon. “Mmmm, delicious!” she said, closing her eyes and swallowing contentedly. I felt sick. Jasper's molten chocolate eyes looked into mine. “Still here? You really are a sucker for punishment,” they seemed to say.
I left the room in a nauseous daze. In the kitchen it was quiet and I held onto the counter for dear life. The sight of Jasper feeding Arabella had almost made me come undone. Misery welled up in me and I felt like bursting into tears.
Suddenly, I spied another letter sealed with red wax tucked beneath one of the serving dishes. It had with my name on it. Carefully I broke the seal and a few coins slid out, there was no message. I gathered this was the 'payment for the extra service' Jasper had mentioned. I felt sick again and tossed the coins back on the table. I had obviously read the invitation wrong, or I had read it right and he had counted on this to play out the charade currently taking place in the dining room. That I was the fool was in no doubt.
“Jasper likes a joke, except when it's on him, of course,” Sebastian had said. Could I somehow turn this joke around so it was no longer on me? What ammunition did I possibly have? Then I remembered. Jasper's letter, the one I'd found in his wardrobe and had tucked away at the back of my bottom drawer. I had never opened it out of some false sense of propriety, hoping for a chance to put it back undiscovered.
Well, the gloves were off now. If I had to go into that room one more time and witness him flirting with Arabella......I shuddered. I calculated I had about ten minutes before they started clamouring for their first course. I flew up the two flights of stairs and into my chamber.
Crossing to the dresser I pulled out the bottom drawer and flung my underthings into the air. It had to be here. Yes! I stood there holding the envelope for what seemed like an age. I had never knowingly opened another person's private mail yet for all its wrongness, it felt right in this case. Taking a deep breath, I opened the flaps and unfolded a sheet of paper that had been well thumbed and was very creased as if it had been opened and read a thousand times. I turned it over and scanned the contents, thanking the lord, and Sebastian, that I could read.
And as I read, the missing pieces of the puzzle of Jasper's life finally fell into place one by one. I finished the letter and stood there like a statue for some minutes, struggling to absorb what I had just read. I couldn't quite believe the irony of life. Either that or God had just revealed Himself to me in the lines of a quavering cursive script. I felt a glimmer of hope. If this were to be the longest night of my life, then by some quirk of fate I had just acquired the internal armour with which to bear the blows.
Throwing back my shoulders, I steeled myself to head back down to the kitchen to serve the lovers their first course.