A little romantic dreaminess as an antidote to all the bad things I’ve written about lately *grin* I don’t do romantic very often, so I hope it passes muster! To accompany it, my favourite Neil Young song, which seemed more than appropriate!
Della sat in the wing-backed chair by the hearth. The flames sent shadows springing across the yellowing whitewash of the walls, bringing it to life in orange splashes. She picked idly at the threads coming loose on the worn arms, her thoughts wandering to other Harvest days, finding it easy to settle on one.
She’d been a maid still, bright of eye and flaxen-haired, a prize to be captured and how the local boys had tried. She had rebuffed them all, feeling in her bones that there was more for her than a farmhouse, lines of laundry and a tribe of snot-nosed howling babes. She’d worked her way, by hard effort and a little help from her Aunt Cassandra, into the post of Lady’s Maid at the big house, dedicating herself to perfect service, and becoming both indispensable and a confident of Lady Imogen, daughter of the house.
Her days were always full, from first light and seeing the fire was made up, clothes laid out and bath water drawn, through dressing, combing, discussing future plans, seeing to Imogen’s special diet – for she’d been a weak soul, ever given to vapours and humours – to the last round of tidying, tucking in and glass of tonic to strengthen the lady’s blood. Dizzy Della, the other maids called her, for she was never still, always chasing down one chore or another, but Della didn’t mind. She preferred being busy, and she knew the harder she worked the more chance she had of being given the nursery position when Imogen inevitably married and had babes she wouldn’t be strong enough, or inclined, to care for.
On the day of that Harvest, the one which shone forever in her fading mind, Della was busier than usual. The big house always threw an enormous ball to celebrate the end of Reaping; two in fact, one for the lords and ladies, the other for the workers. On the morning, Sheila, the housekeeper, was laid out with fever. Lady Imogen, desperate and with no mother to guide her, thrust Della forward, telling the staff to follow her orders.
“I can’t, Della, it’s too much for me. You do it; you know everything.”
With which Imogen had taken to her bed for the rest of the day. Thankful that she had kept on extremely good terms with all the staff – though never mingling, of course – Della had been able to co-opt the aid of Jameson, his lordship’s butler, Minnie, the head cook and Sally-Ann who ran the lower echelons of the maids. Together they’d managed to set up the ballroom, see to the menus and have everything ready before the evening’s festivities began. In transports of relief, whilst Della fussed her into layers of silks and taffetas, pinned her hair and draped it with a net of glittering crystals, and helped her find her be-feathered fan, Imogen had gifted a delicate pearl-drop necklace to her maid in thanks before scurrying off to see which marriageable prospects were attending.
Exhausted, but feeling ever more secure in her future placement, Della had slipped the necklace around her neck, and turned her steps towards the great kitchen where the secondary celebration would be in full swing. Suddenly too worn to face the frivolity, the drunken letching and inevitable unwelcome hands in every dance, she turned left, slipped behind a hanging which depicted a forest hunt and then through the concealed door behind. It circled her around three times and then sprung her out onto a narrow balcony high above the ballroom. Once it had served as a minstrels gallery, but his lordship had built a raised stage at the far end of the ballroom on which to display his hand-picked musicians – a group he retained for his personal use alone; unheard of anywhere in the surrounding area – and now the slender space was reserved for whirling dust bunnies and the occasional music of breezes racing one end to the other.
Della stepped carefully over abandoned music stands and melted candles, propping herself against the far wall, seated on the bannister, where she could look down on the whirling, glittering swirls of people below. She spotted Imogen simpering at the son of a neighbouring earl and shook her head. The girl had little taste and the boy was known across three counties as a roué of the worst kind; it was said he had at least twenty bastards at the tender age of nineteen. Perhaps Imogen knew and thought him suitable as a breeder. Who knew the workings of genteel minds?
Della dreamily watched the dancers come and go, ebbing and flowing across the highly polished marble floor, dresses cutting through the sparkling shadows and light-wells caused by the profusion of torches and candelabra. She spotted jewels of just about every stone known to woman, smiled gently at the nouveau riche vulgarly displaying, the old rich studiously ignoring them, and the young people who cared not a jot, dancing with any pretty face, or handsome one. The players struck up a slow waltz and Della rose, closing her eyes and turning slowly, her long skirts leaving circles and arcs in the years of dust, letting the music take her down to the ballroom where she danced with one so handsome she could barely look at him. She could feel his arms about her, so firm, so…
Della’s eyes flew open, and she stared straight into the cornflower blue gaze of Lord Robert, Imogen’s younger brother. He smiled, straightened his hold and continued to waltz her along the tiny balcony. For once in her life she was dumbstruck. She couldn’t scream and ruin the ball below, not that he had done anything to warrant screaming, if she was honest.
“You dance beautifully, Della, so very light.”
“Thank you, my lord, but…” she glanced over the railing, “should you not be below?”
“Why on earth would I want to be down there? They haven’t got a brain to share between them, and if I have to watch Imogen fawning over that hideous boy any longer I may well be sick to my stomach. I’d much rather dance in the dust with Della.”
His eyes twinkled and she giggled despite herself. The music changed up, faster and Robert tried to move them with it, but the confined space was too much. He stopped, held her at arms length and took on a serious look;
“Do you trust me, Della?”
“Not one inch, my lord.”
“Good girl. This way!”
They fled down the stairs, sprinted through the house, dodged the lackeys outside the ballroom doors and vanished into the gardens. The windows to the ballroom stood open and they could hear the music pouring forth as they scuttled into the rose garden, bathed in pale yellow light by a vast harvest moon. They drew to a stop, Robert taking her in his arms once more, and she could find no will to resist. She knew all the stories of foolish maids who got into trouble with young masters, but her bones were talking and they were telling her this wasn’t about that.
They danced and danced, fast, slow, laughing without care, pressed close, melting into each other, whirling and skipping, leaping and spinning until the music stopped and the sound of coaches approaching could be heard from the front drive. They stopped, face to face, grinning idiotically, then he leaned close. She held her breath.
“May I?” he whispered and she smiled her assent. The kiss had been a chaste thing, light and fleeting, but it burned into their hearts with all the fire of love. They knew he had to go, that she had to return to his sister, and Della thought it might be all there ever was as she waved him away, but the memory had never faded.
He’d been called away the next morning, hadn’t returned for five years, some crisis she never really understood in a land she’d never heard of, but she’d kept that Harvest night close and let it bolster her through the years of Imogen’s marriage and the first of her weak-chinned, sickly children. Until one Harvest evening when she’d sat high above the ball in the minstrel’s gallery. She’d known, almost before he’d stepped into the dust and held out his hand, flying into his arms, letting him spirit her away to this far-flung island with the mine he’d been saving for his father all those years. A father who’d disowned him when he’d married Della, but who’d had the heart to gift him the mine. It had kept them well enough, but they could have been poorer than church mice and still been blissful.
She heard the latch lift, stirring aching bones to rise to her feet. That had been fifty years ago, but he was still beautiful and she went readily to him when he set the needle to the record, wound he gramophone and held out his hand, their footsteps tracing arcs and whirls in the sands blown through the open door.