“First thing’s first,” Cecil said as soon as they got back into their own shared room and had shut the door on the outside world. “We need to find Belle.”
Diana nodded. But where could she be?
“That’s what we need to know. Where do you think she’d have gone?”
Diana shrugged. The only place I can think of is out, away from everything.
“Or she could have gone back to her old home,” Cecil suggested.
Or that, Diana agreed, embarrassed that she wasn’t thinking as practically as Cecil was.
There was an unexpected knocking on their door. Cecil whirled around only to come face-to-face with the sour face of the Butler.
Startled, she gave a little yelp, but soon composed herself and stood as serene as ever.
“Yes, Master? What would you like to inform us about?” she asked, using the formal tone that she used to use to talk to those higher than her when she was back in Marryanne Le Testhmus’ house.
His frown seemed to deepen. “I told you that I’d come back for you in five minutes, remember?”
“Oh, yes, sorry sir.” That had completely slipped from her mind, what with the excitement of everything going on around her. Spies, Belle’s location, and a dozen other words still whizzed around her mind as she tried to think clearly.
“Master,” the Butler said, clearly annoyed. “You call me either Butler or Master. I am sure the word ‘sir’ was never mentioned.”
“Sorry s -- I mean, Master.”
“That’s right. Now, come with me. The meek little thing standing behind you must come, too.”
He was talking to Diana, and she realized this with a start. Everyone had always addressed her politely before.
The Butler watched her for a moment, as if expecting her to say something, but then, luckily, turned on his heel and walked off down the corridor, not looking back to see whether or not they were following him. He seemed to have such an authority about him that Diana had never seen in anyone but her great aunt. But then again, she supposed, her great aunt probably didn’t like inviting people who were of a higher rank than her into her house.
Then it dawned on Diana that she had never even been outside her house before, except to sheltered places like the functions that her great aunt organizes, or the parties she is invited to.
“Come on, Diana. What are you standing there for?” Cecil hissed. With a start, Diana realized that Cecil was already halfway down the corridor. She quickly scurried into action and followed Cecil down into the depths of the house.
They stopped in front of a kitchen. “This is where you will be doing all the work,” the Butler said, gesturing into the darkness of the room.
Diana swallowed. She didn’t want to go in there every day.
“You are scullery maids, remember, so remember your position. Don’t talk to the cooks, don’t eavesdrop on any conversations that are going on in other rooms. Nothing silly or suspicious, otherwise you’re both out. Understood?”
Cecil nodded. “Yes, Butler.”
“Why isn’t the other one talking still? Didn’t you say it was initial shock?” the Butler said, peering at Cecil.
“She does take a bit of time to adjust, Master,” Cecil lied. She wasn’t sure how much longer she could keep up the lying. Soon they’d trap her.
“Right,” the Butler said doubtfully. “Now, you will go and start your work now. The head kitchen maid will tell you what you need to do, aside from scullery.”
Cecil ducked her head and went in. Diana copied her, feeling very small and unimportant as she bowed to a lowly butler.
The door slid shut behind her, and all of a sudden she felt very stifled. She had left her slate and chalk in the room, lest the butler see it and put two and two together and realize she was mute, so she couldn’t tell Cecil what she was feeling.
“Scullery maid, eh?” a voice said from the darkness.
Someone emerged from it, dusting her floury hands on her apron. She looked at Cecil from head to toe.
“Mm, good. You seem to be fit enough. You have to scrub the grease hard, eh?” she chuckled. “Come with me, now.”
She started to walk away, but Cecil’s voice caught her. She turned around.
“Excuse me, ma’am, but there are two scullery maids,” Cecil said.
“Two? Why-ever did Butler send two? I only asked for one!”
“Yes, well, ma’am, he agreed to let us both have a go at scrubbing.”
“Really, now? Hoping to wheedle out some extra pay, are you? I like your thinking, but no. I’m not allowing two scullery maids in here when I only need one.” The woman crossed her hands over her chest, giving Cecil a steely stare.
“No, but it must be so! She’s my sick sister, and we need to be together at all costs. Please, the last word on my ma’s dying breath was; ‘Go and save your sister from her illness. Let there be a cure, and never let yourself come apart. You are one,’” Cecil lied again. Diana looked at her in surprise. She had concocted a good lie.
“Really? Is this true?” the woman asked Diana. Diana didn’t know what to do. Thankfully, before Cecil could lie any further, the woman saved them. “No, I shouldn’t bother. You’d agree to it, anyway.”
The woman sighed, then led them deeper into the kitchen. “I’ll have the both of you, but only because I’m a sentimental old fool, alright? Let’s not breath a word of this to anyone, lest they think I’ve gone and made myself a softie. But I will not tolerate any sort of silliness, or else I’ll not hesitate to fire the both of you!”
Cecil nodded nervously, and Diana ducked her head.
“Now, here is your working station. There’s really only enough space for one, but, if you two snuggle up, you can probably stand there together, being the skinny little things you are.” The woman looked at Diana. “Well, you seem stronger and better-fed. I wonder who your mother is, you lucky girl.”
“She’s not sure,” Cecil translated.
“Orphan, hey? What have I gotten myself into, bringing orphans into this house?” the woman said, throwing her hands up exasperatedly. Then she shook her head. “If you two are worth it, then maybe I will conveniently forget that there’s two of you, and that one of you is an orphan. Now,” she said, clapping her hands together, “let’s get down to business. You will call me Mrs Joan, because it wouldn’t be right to have you two calling me anything else, like Master, or Head. You’ll be expected to be here, in the kitchens, by five o’clock in the morn, because sometimes the Master likes to have his breakfast early, got that? There’s a roster here.”
Mrs Joan pointed to a dirty roster tacked up on the wall. They could hardly see it due to the poor light filtering in through the two windows which were heavily covered with cloth.
“Mrs Joan,” Cecil said, “would it be alright if we pulled open the curtains?”
“No,” she snapped. The abruptness of her answer startled both Cecil and Diana. It seemed to startle her, too, for she quickly amended herself. “I mean, it wouldn’t be wise to do so, because the Master doesn’t like people from outside seeing what’s going on in his kitchens, and anyway, he himself doesn’t like seeing it. It’s also very convenient for talking in ...” She stopped herself. “Never mind, children. Now, get to work. There are many pots there waiting to be scrubbed, and I expect it done by the time I have finished preparing dinner.”
Mrs Joan ushered them towards the basin where they would scrub things, but Cecil had to ask a question.
“Mrs Joan? Mrs Joan?”
“What is it, girl?”
“What were you saying about it being convenient for talking in secret?”
“Talking in secret? I didn’t say that!” Mrs Joan said, startled.
“No, sorry,” Cecil realised she had just given away that she knew something about being a spy.
“Wait, have you conversed with the women in yellow aprons, yet?” Mrs Joan seemed to be very curious.
“One of them, yes,” Cecil answered.
“Just one? Ah, the resident Apron, yes.” Mrs Joan nodded knowingly.
“They haven’t asked you to ... observe, by any chance, have they?” Mrs Joan asked.
“Observe?” Cecil’s eyes widened. “Uh ... no, not at all, no.”
“They have, haven’t they?” Mrs Joan seemed excited all of a sudden. “You are the new spies sent down here to help me! The Master will never know. Even I didn’t know, and I was on the look-out for you two. Well, not two of you, but you know what I mean.”
“So you are in on it?” Cecil asked. Mrs Joan nodded, peering around the room conspiratorially.
“Shh, don’t let anyone hear. This place has thin walls, even if they windows are covered.”
Cecil nodded. Then Mrs Joan asked the inevitable.
“Why isn’t that one talking?”
Cecil followed her finger, and wasn’t surprised to find a startled Diana at the end of it.
“Because ... because...” She had a shock of inspiration. “She’s ill, remember? That’s why she can’t talk.”
Mrs Joan nodded slowly. “So what’s the cure?”
Cecil shrugged. She was about to say that she wasn’t sure when she caught the look in Diana’s eyes. She knew something. Diana mimed drinking something. Her hand went up to her mouth then the other hand went up to her mouth with a cup. Wait, what was that first motion?
Cecil narrowed her eyes, and something clicked. “There is a pill that she takes, a cure. Well, the doctor says so.”
“Doctor? Orphans cannot afford doctors, that I know is for sure.”
Cecil swallowed. She knew she would have said something wrong sometime or other. She glanced at Diana, and Diana gave a slight nod.
“Well,” Cecil took a deep breath. “Diana, who’s my friend over here...”
“That’s just like the name of a richie I know,” Mrs Joan interrupted, chuckling, before Cecil could finish. “Diana Le Testhmus. Her great aunt is very rich. No-one really knows the full extent of her wealth.”
Another imperceptible nod from Diana. “Diana knows.”
“I bet she does, but I’m talking about common folk here.”
“No, this Diana knows.”
Mrs Joan was about to say something when she stopped. Her eyes widened in recognition. “You ... you aren’t the Diana? The mute one of the city? Her?”
Diana nodded, casting her eyes down. She hoped she didn’t get kicked out.
“Is that why you weren’t talking?”
“So it isn’t a sickness after all. Then what about that cure, then? I’m pretty sure there isn’t one.”
Diana shrugged, miming the pill-taking again.
“The doctor said she could have a pill and see what happened,” Cecil explained. Diana shook her head, making Cecil give her a confused look. Diana drew something in the dust. Marryanne made me take it.
“Her great aunt made her take it,” Cecil read to Mrs Joan. Mrs Joan seemed shocked, for some reason.
“Oh, deary, deary, me. Darling, what did she make you take?”
“What box did they come in?”
A white one, with some picture on the side that I can’t remember.
Mrs Joan went white. “That’s ... a ... a poison, dear.”