The Secret Of The Lilies – Part 7

Read Part 6 here, or start from the beginning.

The time for the harvest party was quickly approaching, and it kept the Cromwell House staff busy with the preparations. Downstairs rooms were cleaned and aired out, wood stacked for the bonfire, and cakes created. Every evening, I fell exhausted into my bed. 

During the cleaning, I conveyed most of the plan to Beth. I was careful to do it away from the lilies. It took several hours as we didn’t have any chances to have a long conversation. 

“Lori’s going to get a list from her friend,” I whispered as I passed Beth in the hall outside the kitchen. “And her friend is going to tell all the applicants to put names of family members on their emergency contact list. If they don’t have one, he’s going to encourage them to make one up.” 

“Is that legal?” Beth whispered back. 

“Probably not, but at least this way no one will look as if they are orphans.” 

The preparation days sped by, and all too soon it was the morning of the harvest party. Garlands in fall colors of orange, brown, deep red, and yellow adorned the front porch. Vases were filled with autumn flowers such as chrysanthemums, asters, and celosias. The dining room table sported a golden runner and white and gold china dishes, ready for the Cromwell’s guests of honor. On the back lawn, portable tables and chairs were placed, along with long tables for the buffet. At the edge of the garden, the groundskeepers had prepared a place for a bonfire, and wood was stacked neatly to the side. 

Everywhere I looked, there was beauty and an air of excitement. I found it hard to believe that I had an hand in decorating the manor. My usual party decorations consisted of streamers and balloons, not this elegant arrangement of harmonious colors. The staff was industrious until lunchtime, putting the finishing touches on table settings and gathering supplies for the various games and activities. 

This time, lunch was held in the kitchen for all of the staff on a rotating schedule. Cook prepared platters of sandwiches, sliced fruit, and cut vegetables. The house staff ate first, followed by the gardeners, and then the guards. Beth took trays upstairs for the family. It took a few minutes for me to figure out who was missing. 

“Cook, where’s Esther?” 

“Eh? Oh, old Esther goes to her daughter’s the morning of the harvest party. Then the girl comes back with her for the celebration in the afternoon. I think it’s truly her only day off.” Cook began putting the leftover food away. “Let’s get this cleaned up so we can enjoy the rest of the day.” 

I helped with the dishes and once Cook was satisfied, I went to her room to change. Beth told me the employees all wore their city clothes to the party. “You know, the ones you wear to town on your days off,” she clarified when I looked at her in confusion. 

I pulled on a soft cashmere sweater in a dark blue, and black jeans. I brushed my hair out, letting it be free of the confines of a braid or bun. Then I called Lori. 

“Are you ready?” I asked as soon as Lori picked up.

“Everything’s set. I’ll see you at four.” 

I decided to wander around the garden while I reviewed our plan. I put on a dark wool jacket and headed outside. The garden beds were mostly empty this late in the season. A few pumpkins still clung to their vines — the ones that weren’t chosen for pies or carving. Corn stalks scratched against each other in the light breeze, and here and there a squished vegetable laid discarded. She could smell the sweet note of apples that were still on the trees, although most were already picked and in storage. 

“What are you doing out here, Emma?” Joe’s gruff voice interrupted my thoughts. 

I looked up to see him standing a few rows over. “Oh, hi. I’m just walking. Is that okay?”

“The party will be starting soon. You should get back.” 

His abruptness didn’t surprise me after the way their last conversation ended. “Yes, okay. See you at the party.” I turned and made my way back to the house. 

The Cromwell’s harvest party was the biggest one in town, as most of the town came. They had jack o’lantern carving contests, apple bobbing, corn hole, and more. There was enough food for everyone. I wondered where they got it all, since the house garden provided for the family and staff, but soon she realized the caterer brought most of it up. Only Cook’s treats were made at the house. 

Lori arrived promptly at four o’clock, an hour after the party started, and I was waiting for her at the top of the driveway. We hugged, and I felt Lori slip something into the pocket of her jacket. 

“Is that it?” I asked quietly. 

“Yep, and everyone has someone to miss them.” 

“Perfect. Once the bonfire starts, I’ll go see if those lilies will finally tell me the truth.”

“Have you seen the children yet?” Lori asked. 

My mouth dropped open. I had forgotten all about wanting to see the Cromwell children in my desire to save the temporary workers. “No, but they should be out here tonight, don’t you think?” 

Lori nodded, and together we headed to the buffet tables. 

As the party wore on, I kept looking at all the children present, trying to see which ones looked like Mr. or Mrs. Cromwell. They were all moving so fast, though, darting between tables and dashing from one activity to another, that I finally gave up and figured they would be introduced when the bonfire was lit. 

Finally, the sun’s last rays were beginning to disappear from the horizon, and Joe stood next to the teepee of kindling and sticks. A loud gong was heard from the house, and everyone turned towards it. Mr. and Mrs. Cromwell stood on the patio that led into the dining room, holding hands and smiling. Once the murmurs quieted, Mr. Cromwell raised his other hand and spoke in a loud voice that carried across the lawn. 

“Welcome, friends, to our annual harvest party! I won’t tell you how many years our family has been hosting as you wouldn’t believe me anyway.” Polite chuckles scattered around the crowd. “Tonight is a special night, as our dear head housekeeper, Esther, is bringing her daughter to the house for training as her successor. Please help me welcome young Abigail to our staff!” 

He released his wife’s hand and began clapping, while a young girl stepped out from the crowd to stand on the lowest stone step of the patio. The guests followed his action, and soon Abigail was blushing from the applause.  

Mr. Cromwell waived his hand and silence descended. “Thank you. I’m sure she will make a wonderful head housekeeper when she’s old enough. Now, to the part you all have been waiting for. It’s not a harvest party without a bonfire, and as part of our ritual here at Cromwell house, we invite you to write down a wish for this coming season and burn it in the fire. Joe, if you please.” 

Everyone turned back to the fire pit and watched as Joe took a punk from a bucket and lit the fuel-soaked kindling. With a rush, the fire caught and raced to the top of the teepee. Joe stepped back, and several other men came forward to add more logs to the inferno. I kept the Cromwells in my peripheral vision, and was startled to see them step down onto the grass and begin to mingle with the townsfolk. Beth told me they usually went back inside the house to their private drawing room. 

“Now’s my chance,” I told Lori. 

Before my friend could respond, I dashed to the kitchen door and raced to the entryway. The foyer was dim, lit only by the porch lights shining in the glass doors from outside. I could see well enough, however, and she stood between the two giant pots of lilies. 

“Hello, beauties,” I said as calmly as I could. 

“Hi, Emma. Enjoying the party?” Their collective voice still made chills go down my spine. 

“Yes, thank you. But I was wondering if you could tell me something.” 

“What? You probably hear more gossip than we do, since we cannot walk around.” 

“True, but this is about you, so I’m sure you know the answer.” 

“What?” They asked again. 

“What really happens at the harvest parties?” 

There was no answer. I figured the lilies wouldn’t tell her the truth. Truth…maybe I can trick them, I thought. 

“Oh, well, I guess you don’t really know. Beth said you didn’t.” I began to walk away. 

“Beth is a liar. We know!” 

“Really? Can you tell me? I promise to keep your secret.” 

There was a small gasp, almost as if the lilies all drew in a breath at the same time, and then they began speaking. “We are magic, you realize. Do you know magic?” 

“I know you’re magic,” I responded. “Regular flowers don’t talk.”

“Yes,” the lilies giggled. “We are rare. We use our magic to help the Cromwells but it needs replenished or we lose it.” 

“How do you help the Cromwells?” 

“We keep them alive. Mrs. Cromwell is three-hundred and sixty years old next month.” 

I drew in a breath. I wanted to ask if they were sure, if they were telling the truth, but I knew we could be interrupted at any moment. “And how do you need your magic replenished?” 

“The lost ones’ souls.” 

“Lost ones…do you mean the temporary workers?” 

“Yes. At the end of the harvest party, Beth and Joe bring them to us, one by one. They can’t resist smelling us. We are beautiful and alluring. When they come near, we absorb their souls.” 

“You kill them,” I stated flatly. 

“Yes, but they do not go to waste. They feed us for a long time.”

“How? What do you mean?” I felt my stomach roll and fought to keep the nausea from overwhelming me. 

“Blood and bone,” they replied. 


Featured Image by Nowaja on Pixabay.

The Secret Of The Lilies – Part 1

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.”