It is my second month as an assistant housekeeper for the Cromwell family. They are what was called “old blood.” Their ancestors were rich, they were rich, and their great-great-grandchildren would probably be rich. As I entered the kitchen from the backdoor that we commonly called “the help’s door,” I questioned my choices that got me here.
At seventeen, I ran away with my boyfriend. I thought we were madly, inescapably in love. Apparently, that was just me. After a few months, I started to talk about finding an apartment to live in instead of couch-surfing, and he decided it was better for us to go our separate ways. Okay, so that was a nice way of saying I woke up one morning in his sister’s spare room to find him gone. He left a note, though. “It was fun. See you around.”
I wanted to go home but was too stubborn and prideful to admit to my parents that they were right about Nate. I convinced my friend Lori to talk to her family, and they agreed that I could stay with them for two months while I got a job and found a place to live. At the time, I envisioned nothing but fast-food or retail in my future.
Every day, I scoured the want ads over breakfast and dropped off applications until almost dinner time. One morning, there was an intriguing ad that caught my eye. It was in a larger font than the rest, with a black box border around it, indicating the employer had paid extra to get more notice.
Wanted: Assistant Housekeeper. Duties include general household cleaning, light gardening, and some errands. Anyone with a good attitude and willingness to work will be considered.
Apply at Cromwell House; ask for the head housekeeper, Esther Stone.
My spoon clattered into my bowl as I grabbed the newspaper and carefully ripped the ad out of the section.
“What’s going on?” Lori asked, coming into the crowded kitchen with her dark hair in a towel.
“I think I just found a job I can do! It’s just cleaning and gardening, and they didn’t specify a huge list of skills. I’m going to go apply right now!”
“Good luck!” Lori called after me as I ran to her room to get changed.
I dressed carefully in a dark blue skirt and cream-colored blouse. I added low-heeled black shoes and small silver earrings. I didn’t want to appear like the homeless waif I was, so I added a silver necklace with a small heart pendant. After pulling my blond hair up into a neat ponytail, I dabbed a tiny bit of lipgloss on my lips but forwent any other makeup. I felt that simple and understated would be best.
The Cromwell House was the most prominent building in the area. It sat on a small hill overlooking the bay. Once a month, tours were given of its grounds and public rooms. Some locals called it The Castle, and they weren’t wrong. A brick wall surrounded the property, and the house sat at the top of the hill. Flower gardens and soft green grass lined both sides of the driveway. A black iron gate stood sentinel at the driveway’s entrance, with a little guardhouse next to it.
The bus stop was only one block away from The Castle. I used the short walk to compose myself; excitement was churning in my stomach, threatening to bring up the cereal I had scarfed down.
When I reached the closed gate, I wasn’t sure what to do. “Hello?” I called.
The door to the guardhouse opened, and a thin man with greying hair stepped out. “Tours aren’t until next Thursday,” he said and then turned to go back into the guardhouse.
“Wait, please! I’m here about the job. Can I please see Esther Stone?” My words rushed over each other, trying to get out before he could close the door.
He paused a moment before coming closer to the gate. “The job, huh? You think you want to be a housekeeper here?” He looked me up and down. “Well, come in, then. Let’s see if she’ll take you on.” Drawing a set of keys from his pocket, the guard unlocked a smaller door cleverly inset into the gate.
I stepped through and shivered a bit when I heard the door clang shut behind me.
“Head on up to the house, but be sure to use the back door by the kitchens. Take the stone path to the right of the driveway when you’re near the garage, and it will take you around. I’ll call up to Esther to let her know you’re coming.”
I thanked him and then started up the driveway. It was about half of a mile long and curved around the hill, so you could only see the house’s top through the landscaped trees. I worried that I would be a little sweaty by the time I got there, so I flapped my arms a bit as I walked to cool off.
The pathway was exactly where the guard said it would be, and as I followed it behind the garage, I noticed the flower gardens turned to herbs and then to vegetables. There was a door at the back of the house, one of those old-fashioned ones that split so you can open the top half while keeping the bottom closed. The top half had a thick glass window set into it and was open to the summer breeze. Once again, I found myself unsure of what to do. Should I knock? Call out? The decision was taken away from me as a stern-looking woman dressed in a knee-length black dress suddenly appeared, pushing open the bottom doorway.
“Here for the job? Charles called up. I’ll interview you in the kitchen. Come in.”
That was Esther, and she gave me the job. Obviously, since I’m here now. The job came with a small room, shared with the other assistant housekeeper, meals, and a decent wage. So far, the work hasn’t been hard. I pick vegetables in the morning if Cook needs them for lunch and dinner, sweep and mop the floors, do the dishes, and water the flowers. I have every Sunday afternoon free to do what I want. I’m not allowed upstairs yet. That’s where the family lives. The main floor is laid out for entertaining, with a large entryway, a formal sitting room and dining room, and a music room.
I placed the basket of tomatoes and peppers on the counter in the kitchen and moved to the side sink to wash my hands. Once done, I hung up my coarse red apron – to only be used in the gardens – and donned my pristine white house apron. I had a black dress, like Esther’s now.
“Thanks, girl,” Cook said. “Esther told me to have you start with the plants in the foyer today. She said the lilies are looking a little drab.”
“Okay, I’ll see what I can do for them.” I kept my reply short. Cook was kind, but Esther disliked unnecessary chatter. I scooped up a watering can, filled it with cool water from the side sink, and added a little of the plant food that Joe, the head gardener, said was good for all the indoor plants.
I walked through the door that led to the hallway behind the dining room. The Cromwell House was laid out in such a way that servants could access most of the main floor without being seen by guests. This hallway went from the kitchen to the entryway, and doors led into the other main rooms. From the main rooms, the doors weren’t noticeable unless you were looking for them. At the end of the hall was the door to the foyer. No one was scheduled to visit today, but I still checked the peephole to be sure there weren’t any guests. Esther told me to make it a habit. If I ever came out of a door while guests were present, either I had better be serving dinner, or the house was on fire.
As expected, there wasn’t anyone there, so I pressed the latch that allowed the door to swing quietly open, closing it behind me.
The trumpet lilies sat in large containers to either side of the front door. They were a stunning variety called African Queen. Dark gold on the inside with magenta hues streaking the petals outside and magenta pistils, I was in love with them the first time I saw them last week.
“How are my gorgeous beauties doing today? Are you a little dry?” I murmured to the plants. My mother always talked to her houseplants, and I guess I was more like her than I wanted to admit. She always said the plants had feelings and grew better if you talked nicely to them. And, at times, I swear I heard Joe talking to the vegetable plants in the garden.
I prodded the soil in each container, noticing that they were dryer than they should be. “Oh, you poor things. I am so sorry. I should have watered you yesterday. Let’s get you fixed up.”
“Maybe you should worry about yourself.” The voice was soft, and I turned around, expecting to see Beth, the upstairs maid, standing behind me. No one was there.
“I know I didn’t sleep well, but I’ve never heard things because of being tired before,” I muttered. I began watering one of the planters, being sure to move the stream of water over the soil so not one spot became too saturated. I leaned closer to the lilies to get to the side against the wall.
“We like you, so we’re warning you.” This time the soft voice sounded as if it was right next to my ear.
I pulled back and looked around again.
“We know you aren’t stupid, Emma. So listen.”
This time I was sure of it. The lilies were talking to me!
“Am I crazy?” I asked.
“No, Emma. We are talking to you, just like you talk to us.”
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Then I pinched my arm as hard as I could and opened my eyes. I must be daydreaming.
“Emma, listen to us. The Cromwell’s who live here now are the same Cromwell’s who lived here a hundred years ago when this house was built.”
I decided it was worth playing along until I could see a doctor or get some sleep. “What do you mean?” I moved to the other container and began watering.
“The Cromwell’s are immortal. Have you ever seen them?” Now I could tell it wasn’t just one soft voice, but several, as if each flower was speaking simultaneously.
“Not up close,” I admitted.
“Good,” the lilies replied. “They want you to replenish them.”
“Replenish them? How? Wait a moment.” I rubbed my head and then moved to the servant’s door. I opened it a crack, just enough to be sure no one was coming, before closing it again and turning back to the lilies. “Okay, tell me everything.”