When she was hired as a maid, no one told her that she'd hold the future of the Dozen Landsteads in her bosom.
"Sir," said Comrade Carruthers, pacing back and forth as far as the telephone cord would allow him in his study, "the maritime laws of the Alliance of the Dozen Landsteads are manifestly outdated, preventing honest watermen from making a living except by— Blast it, girl, haven't you finished sweeping yet?"
It was not as though she liked sweeping this room. It was filled with furniture that she daren't move, so her broom was constantly barred by some leg of furniture. "Sir, I mean Comrade, I could come back later if you wish—"
But he had already turned back to his far more important telephone call. "No, sir, I cannot accept that laws framed in the middle centuries, before the time that scientific methods of fishing were developed— Blast you, girl, what do you think you're doing?"
She had been trying to squeeze between her master and the gas fixture to sweep the dirt out of the door to the hallway – not that he ever admitted he was her master. "Comrade" was what he liked to call himself, as though the two of them were fellow servants, amiably exchanging chat.
Oh, now she was thinking disloyal thoughts. Flushing, she tried to stammer out an apology, but he was on the phone again.
"No, sir, I was not attending to what you were saying just now, and why should I? If you are going to insist on acting as if we still live in ancient times—"
She fled then, even though she knew she would receive a reprimand from her master for a job left half-done.
"The problem," she said later, sitting on the bench in front of the kitchen fire in the dependency, "is that Master has never swept a floor."
Millie choked down a giggle as she scoured the pans. Irene – who looked even more weary than usual after spending a day fetching items for her mastress – simply stared at Sally. Cook said in a sarcastic voice, "Why, he's not our master, is he? He's our comrade. Maybe I should assign him duties here." She pointed toward the mound of vegetables she was having to cut up herself, since her scouring girl, Millie, was too busy washing up from the afternoon tea.
As usual, Variel was of greater help. He asked mildly, "He doesn't leave you enough time for the sweeping?"
She sighed as she poked out her cold, tired feet toward the fire in the hearth. The centuries-old fireplace no longer had any practical use for cooking – Cook used the stove – but it helped to heat the dependency at this time of year, when the autumn chill was beginning to creep in, but before their mastress had ordered that the summer kitchen be abandoned in favor of the winter kitchen inside the mansion. "Master thinks I can help return the dishes to the dependency after breakfast, rush up to my bedroom, change out of my mealtime serving uniform, put on my cleaning uniform, fetch the broom, duster, dustpan, and rags from the closet, haul them all downstairs to the study, and have that entire big room swept and dusted, all in the space of an hour."
"Mastress doesn't mind if I clean when she's in the same room as her," contributed Irene, taking interest in the conversation. "She considers it a learning experience."
Millie rolled her eyes. They were all familiar with Comradess Carruthers's valiant attempts to learn how to do housework.
"Master says he doesn't mind either," Sally replied. "But he grows more and more irritated, the longer I'm there. And he always calls his liege-master right after breakfast—"
For the first time, Variel looked alarmed. "He is irritated while on the phone to the High Master?"
"Yes, and he was yelling at the High Master today. I know that Comrade Carruthers is the Second Landstead's regent heir, but surely he's not allowed to yell at our landstead's ruler, is he?"
Now even Cook was looking sober. Wiping her hands on her apron, she said, "There's going to be a dustup between those two, you mark my words."
"The longer we can put that off, the better chance there is that the young master will have the opportunity to intervene," responded Variel, frowning.
"Well, young Master Carr isn't here," said Sally bitterly. "If he was, I'd ask his help. He was always kind to me, ever since I was hired last summer. But he's back at school now, and his father— Do you suppose it would do any good to talk to Comrade Carruthers about this?"
"No!" It was a chorus from Cook, Irene, and Millie.
"You'd best not," Variel said quietly. "I'll see whether I can have a quiet word with him, when his mood is right. Till then . . . Well, you'll just have to be as unobtrusive as possible."
The problem was that the sweeping took so very long.
She'd been taught to sweep by her mother, in an offhand fashion, for Mam had seven kids to care for, not to mention an exacting husband, though Sally barely remembered him, Dad having died after his boat sank in a storm when she was five. By the time that Mam died from sheer exhaustion, Sally had already been working four years as a maid, but none of her mastresses had ever taken the time to teach Sally her duties. And she could hardly expect help from her present mastress; kind though she was, Comradess Carruthers seemed unable to so much as sew a button.
Sally would have liked to ask Bat what to do. It was he who had arranged for her to take her position in the household. There was an understanding between the two of them – not quite an engagement, for they wouldn't be able to marry without their master's permission, but they'd agreed that, as soon as they received that permission, they'd rush off and find a cleric to pronounce the blessings over them.
"Till then, for goodness' sake, keep your blouse well buttoned," said Bat in a rare moment of exasperation. "I'd never have suggested he hire you if I'd known that Comrade Carruthers would take the wrong sort of interest in you."
She spent half her days now trying to avoid attracting Master's attention, and half her days trying to hide from Mastress why she was doing so. Mastress was deeply in love with Master. Master was also deeply in love with Mastress, which was the only thing that had saved Sally so far. But the more attention she attracted to herself with her sweeping, the more likely it was that Master would— Well, not try to bed her, she couldn't envision him going that far in his self-deception. Probably he'd dismiss her without a reference, and then she'd be left on the streets. No Mam, no Dad, no employer. There was only one place in the Dozen Landsteads for those sorts of servant girls to go. Even being bedded by her master would be better than that fate.
So she tried to sweep unobtrusively. It wasn't working.
"—the most scientific methods of fishing demand that the least amount of effort be exerted to bring in the harvest," said Comrade Carruthers, practically pulling the cord from the telephone's handset as he paced back and forth. "That means dredging boats such as ours— Girl, what do you think you're doing?"
What she was doing was trying to dust, as she'd been ordered. She froze in the midst of standing on her toes to dust the bust of Remigeus over the hearth. It wasn't a very good likeness of Remigeus. It made him look like a master at his leisure, when actually, the ancient founder of the Dozen Landsteads' law system had been a downtrodden slave.
"How much longer are you going to be?" Comrade Carruthers snapped.
She looked down at the floor. She'd just finished sweeping there, but the dust from the statue had drifted down to the floor. She'd have to sweep again.
Comrade Carruthers didn't stay for an answer. Striding back toward the telephone base on the desk, he said, "No, I am not letting myself be distracted from the discussion! I am trying to get it through your unscientific, middle-centuries mind—"
"This is awful," said Sally. "At this rate, the High Master will strip Master of his regency."
They were all standing around her in the dependency, looking concerned. Variel, who possessed a superhuman ability to remain cool in crises, was drumming his fingers on the porcelain sink.
"I wish Bat were here," Sally said bleakly. "He'd think of something." Too late, she realized she was impugning the reasoning powers of the highest-ranked servant there.
But Variel looked unoffended. "Our young footman is very clever," he agreed. "Unfortunately, he is unavailable to assist us."
"Took Mastress up to see her sister in Fairhaven," contributed Millie. "Bet there's lots of pretty girls up there."
For once, Sally was too blind with misery to counter Millie's rough, good-natured teasing. "What shall I do? It's the second time I've fled the study with duties left undone. Master threatened to fire me afterwards if I couldn't get my sweeping properly finished. Yet if I sweep while he's on the phone with the High Master . . . I'm just a maid!" she burst out, unable to find a way to voice her frustration at being thrust into the task of keeping the peace in the government of the Dozen Landsteads.
"I expect he thinks you're a robot," suggested Irene, who was sitting at the other end of the bench, unstitching Mastress's latest attempts at mending her own clothes. "Something mechanical that can sweep in the fastest manner possible."
"The most efficient, scientific manner," said Millie, laughing. They'd all heard Comrade Carruthers's futile attempts to persuade the High Master to allow advanced technology into the Dozen Landsteads.
"Scientific . . ." murmured Sally.
"Can't you do something?" asked Cook, turning to Variel.
He shook his head. "I tried to raise the subject with him. It wasn't the right moment."
"How many lashes did you get?" asked Millie, immediately sympathetic.
Variel didn't reply. He never complained about the unjust beatings he received from their master.
Millie nudged Sally. "Hoi. You asleep? You look caught up in a different world."
Sally raised her face, turning her attention to Variel. "Do you suppose there's a scientific way to sweep?"
Variel shrugged. Cook snorted. "Wouldn't be surprised. Mastress thinks there's a scientific way to cook."
But Millie was looking eager now. "We could figure it out, couldn't we? Fastest way to sweep. We've all swept. 'Cept you," she added to Variel.
"I've been known to sweep a floor or two, in my days as a young hallboy," said Variel. He had removed from his jacket pocket the memorandum book he carried there. In theory, it was for Master's use, though everyone knew that – in one of his periodic, unpredictable moments of generosity – Master had deliberately broken the Dozen Landsteads' high law and taught his valet to read. "Let's figure this out from the start. We need to know first how many yards you have to sweep. . . ."
Dusting came first. She carefully but swiftly dusted the mantelpiece, side table, desk-chair, desk, and lamp. The armchair, thankfully, was cushioned and did not need to be dusted every day.
Then, beginning in one corner of the study, Sally took up her broom and worked along the crack between the baseboard and the carpet. "That's where the moths and carpet bugs do their worst," Irene had helpfully pointed out. Then Sally swept all the dirt toward the center of the room, rather than toward the hallway, as she was accustomed. "Takes less time that way," Millie had said, being the household's expert on how to save work-time.
Sally was just taking up the dirt in her pan and congratulating herself on a job well done when Comrade Carruthers entered the room and began coughing. "Good heavens, girl," he said. "Can't you stir up less dust when you work?" Without waiting for a response, he grabbed the phone, frowning. By the time Sally managed to make her way past him, he was saying in the phone, "No, I have not calmed my temper since our last discussion. That idiotic notion of yours—"
"It's no good," said Sally, holding her bowed head in her hands. "The High Master is sure to strip Comrade Carruthers of his regency."
Variel, who knew the high law better than any of the other servants, said, "The only way the High Master can do that is to disown his actual heir."
They all looked at each other, wide-eyed with alarm. Young Master Carr, they well knew, was their landstead's greatest hope for the future. Whatever else his faults might be – and since he was seventeen, he had plenty of youthful faults – he would make a much better High Master than the many masters in the Second Landstead who gave no thought to the welfare of servants. Living in this household had taught Master Carr to care about the servants, though often in ways that his father had not intended.
"We just need to find you a proper way of sweeping, one that doesn't stir up the dust," said Cook briskly.
"It's no good!" wailed Sally. "Even with scientific methods, it still takes too long for me to sweep!"
Irene said sourly, "You're lucky you don't have to beat rugs daily, like I did. Your young man managed to persuade Mastress that you were too young to lug the rugs outdoors to the clotheslines."
If Bat were here . . . But he wasn't, and by the time he came back from Fairhaven, it was likely that doom would have befallen both Sally and the Dozen Landsteads.
"Master likes mechanical things," said Millie, evidently trying to lighten the mood. "It's too bad we can't hire a robot."
"True enough that he likes mechanical toys." Cook cast a loving look at her gas stove. Everyone knew that the stove was the reason Cook hadn't quit long ago. "He'd put in an electric stove if the High Master allowed our landstead to be electrified."
Standing in the corner of the kitchen – he never sat during these discussions – Variel murmured, "Mechanical things . . ."
Catching on to his thoughts, Sally perked up with excitement. "Could we?"
"Vacuum cleaner!" cried Millie. "That's what we need. A mechanical cleaner to suck up the dirt, quick as a shake. There are some that can run without electricity."
Irene, the perennial nay-sayer, shook her head. "My brother Ken works for a hardware merchant who sells manual vacuum cleaners. Ken says it takes two servants to work those cleaners, and the cleaners are loud enough to scare the reborn into dying again."
"We don't want anything that would disturb Master," Sally said, alarmed.
"Well," said Cook, "I can't help with all these scientific toys, but if you're wanting to settle the dust, I have some ideas. . . ."
Having finished sprinkling the tea leaves on the carpet, Sally dipped her broom in the bucket of soapsuds and began sweeping. She stopped after a minute, staring at the carpet. Not a single dust mote had arisen.
In the hallway outside, Comrade Carruthers said, "Variel, what was all that noise when I rose this morning? I heard banging downstairs, and there was a horse and cart outside."
"I apologize deeply for disturbing your sleep, Comrade." Variel was too well-trained a servant to excuse himself.
"But what was that noise about?"
"I was placing mesh screens upon the registers, Comrade," Variel explained. "It helps to prevent coal-dust from entering the rooms."
"And the horse and cart?"
"A delivery of sawdust. Henceforth, before Bat removes the ashes from the furnace, he will sprinkle wet sawdust over the ashes. That should prevent the house from filling with dust as he removes the ashes. Or so I read in one of your scientific books," he added with just the right note of gratitude. Pausing from her rapid sweeping, Sally passed a hand over her mouth to hide her smile.
"Well done," said Comrade Carruthers with that faint sound of surprise which always entered his voice when he noticed that the servants were living up to his high expectations for them. "I wish that the other servants would show your initiative and— Blast it, girl, are you making my study floor wet?"
"It's no use," said Sally, rubbing the latest flow of tears off her cheeks while simultaneously trying to hug herself. "I might as well start searching for a brothel to work in. And the rest of our landstead should prepare for the civil war that will occur when the High Master disowns Comrade Carruthers and his son."
"I don't think that will be necessary," replied Variel in a matter-of-fact manner. He pushed into the kitchen an item that Sally identified, after a moment of incredulity, as a carpet sweeper.
"Master bought that for me?" said Sally, breathless at the thought.
Variel shook his head. "It would have taken too long for me to persuade him that this was a necessary expenditure. Millie's brother obtained it for you inexpensively."
Inexpensively. A carpet sweeper could not possibly be cheap, even discounted. And if Master hadn't paid for it . . .
"Oh, you are all wonderful!" Sally proceeded to hug and kiss all of them, even Variel, who looked quietly embarrassed.
"—dinner for the High Master." As he entered the study, Comrade Carruthers spoke over his shoulder to Variel. "That is, if I can get through our conversation without being disturbed. —No, girl, you are not leaving here till your chore is done!"
"I'm all through, Comrade," said Sally in a cheerful voice as she pushed her carpet sweeper to the door. "Unless you would like me to clean the room again?"
"No," said Comrade Carruthers slowly as he looked around at the spotless study. "No, that won't be necessary."
By the time they reached the point of drinking their after-dinner coffee, both men were relaxed in their chairs. Offering his brother-in-law a cut-glass dish, Comrade Carruthers said, "I'm glad you could join me tonight."
Declining the mints in the dish, the High Master commented, "You appear to be much calmer in our conversations recently."
"I've had fewer distractions," Comrade Carruthers explained tersely. "Now, about my plans for expanding the rights of servants in the Dozen Landsteads . . ."
"We have discussed that before," replied the High Master as he sat back, watching Bat refill his coffee cup. "I came here tonight to discuss the rights of watermen in other landsteads to go about their work without having their oyster beds invaded unlawfully by boats from our landstead."
Refilling a candy tray, Sally nearly spilled the hard candies on the floor. She looked fearfully over her shoulder, expecting an explosion from the mansion's Master, whose fleet's flagrant piracy was well known.
But Comrade Carruthers, still looking relaxed, replied merely, "I'll be glad to discuss that subject with you later, but first I wish to advocate on behalf of the servants. I don't think you properly value the intelligence and initiative of servants. Why, in their own small way, they could make contributions to the governance of this landstead. . . ."
All around the room, the servants covered their mouths. Returning the coffee pot to its place on the sideboard, Bat grinned openly at Sally and saluted her.
She grinned back, then returned her attention to the masters discussing high matters of peace that servants, of course, could not be expected to understand.