Peter Tyler was drunk. He was always drunk these days.
Drunkenness was his instinctive response to any and all of life’s bumps and gullies. When he’d lost at cards he drank his cares away, when he’d had a good day at the table it was an ale to celebrate, and another, and another. And so today, as Rose watched her father on what must have been the worst day of her life, she was unsurprised to see him bottle already in hand, his shoulders slumped in utter defeat.
The sharp cacophony of breaking dishes echoed through the stone farmhouse, drifting from the kitchen cellar, and chased by the muffled sound of Cook’s fury. It had been like that all day, chaos, and crashing, and cursing. The movers that Peter Tyler could still afford to pay valued efficiency, and a short workday over protecting the families few remaining assets.
The workers sent by his Lordship seemingly valued nothing.
Rose had known for a long time it had been coming to this. Their farm had been a prosperous one once, with good land and easy access to the river trade routes. When well managed it should have afforded a comfortable, if not wealthy, income for a small family with just a lone daughter to support. But Peter Tyler was a fool, and ever since his wife had passed away, a drunkard, and gambler to boot.
The late Jacqueline Tyler had handled the management of the farm shrewdly. Rose had done her best to take up the reigns since her Mother’s passing but the Lord of Pituitary Manor was cruel and the taxes had been staggering. It was even rumored that, smelling blood, he’d personally bankrolled some of Peter Tyler’s more unfortunate nights at cards.
The more lost things seemed, the more Peter drank, and the more he drank the more he gambled. Until finally the day came when Rose had needed to inform her father that the bills simply could not be paid. He’d headed out that night to beg his Lordship for mercy, a little time, just until they got their feet back under them. Still, Rose had had her misgivings even then. Would time really help? While liquor was still plentiful and men lined up to take advantage of a broken man? But what else could they do?
Her father had returned late that night, too late. The stench of tavern and tobacco clinging to his body, and the threadbare wool coat he tossed carelessly upon the floor. Even once he’d finally sobered up all he’d said when Rose asked him what had happened that night was that the debt must be paid. Their farm, the livestock, all their possessions, would be sold to cover what they owed, everything of value.
A thuggish and tanned hired hand pushed his way past Rose and her Father, carrying a large crate of ornaments that Rose recognized from her personal sitting room. Among them was a small intricately carved marquetry jewelry box. Its contents were of little value, ear bobbles and a necklace of gilded tin her father had gifted her upon her coming of age. But the box had belonged to her mother, an heirloom passed down from her maternal grandmother.
Rose shot a regretful parting glance at her father. He’d begun to work on his bottle, and beyond giving the occasional scornful sniff in the direction of the workingmen, looked utterly unlikely to be doing anything of use that day. Giving him up, for the time being, Rose chased after the crate. The men were working fast and she had to rush to catch up. By the time she’d reached him, the hired hand had already made his way through the front garden and placed the collection of things on a rough wooden cart by the lane. Beside him, a tall dark haired man in a rather well tailored coat, made tally of the load on a piece of parchment. Rose pushed the man aside, lunging to seize the box and clutch it to her chest just as the worker grabbed her from behind and whipped her away from the cart.
Spinning and off footed, Rose tumbled to her bottom in the dust and dirt of the yard. A load of caged chickens that had been set by the roadside cackled at the commotion. Rose glared at the man. She’d been called stubborn before, by her mother and Cook, perhaps it was time it did her some good.
“It’s mine,” Rose shouted.
The item had been given to her by her mother, not bought with borrowed money. Surely she should be able to keep it.
The workman towered over her, his heavy boots kicking the dust of the road up in her face. Rose could see from the look on his face he wouldn’t waste time to argue the matter. Rose’s heart raced as he raised the back of his hand.
“Stupid wench,” he spat
Rose clutched the small box closer as she instinctively squeezed her eyes shut.
“Foster, that’s enough!” the man beside him shouted.
Rose looked up to see the well-dressed man stepping between herself and the brute, his posture leaving little doubt as to his authority. Foster narrowed his eyes but fell back obediently.
“This wench thinks she can steal from his Lordship. I was only going to teach her a lesson,” he said.
The man who’d come between them gestured at his list.
“You have work to do Foster. Educating young maids is not amongst your duties. I suggest you get back to work.”
Foster narrowed his eyes, sizing up the man. His opponent was tall, with broad shoulders, but his frame - while neatly proportioned - was quite a bit slimmer than the heavyset laborer and Rose thought it would be little contest should the matter come to blows.
Authority won the day however and, without even another glance at where Rose was still tumbled in the dirt, Foster left. A group of men had begun to linger in the small garden courtyard and the man with the list shot them a stormy look.
“All of you get back to work before Lord Posterior hears of this.”
As the workers shuffled off Rose regarded the man. Beneath a rather disheveled mop of dark hair he wore an expression of immense distaste. It was clear in that moment he would rather be anywhere else than her humble farmstead. His clothing, while well-made and suited to his frame, was constructed of fabric that was less fine than it was simple and durable. All together his mode of dress, while refined, lacked the showy embellishments and lace, which was the fashion among the local nobility. The manor house men had obeyed him without question, therefore Rose surmised that the man was likely his Lordship’s solicitor or land manager.
Turning to Rose, the solicitor scrabbled to his knees beside her, stumbling awkwardly, but managing to grasp her, one hand in her‘s, and the other beneath her elbow, and help her to her feet.
“My apologies Miss, the men forget themselves.”
Rose nodded. She wished she had a free hand to tidy her hair and brush off her skirts, but she clutched the precious box in one hand, while the other was still trapped in the man’s grasp. The solicitor regarded her, a worn, weary look behind his level gaze, and Rose shifted her weight awkwardly. She was beginning to feel foolish. Was he testing her? Trying to puzzle something out? The man seemed stiff and formal, and rather too intense for her taste, but not, Rose thought, unkind.
Uncomfortable in the silence Rose dropped her gaze to where their hands were still entwined and, remembering himself, the solicitor dropped her hand.
“I’m afraid I can’t let you keep it.”
For a moment Rose couldn’t quite tell what he was talking about, but then she remembered the jewelry box still clutched to her chest.
“The case was on the list provided to me by his Lordship. It must be accounted for.” The solicitor’s voice was gentle but firm, and Rose felt her stomach turn. There’d be no arguing with him.
“But it’s hardly worth anything,” she pleaded.
“Even so it must be sold. The auction is tonight.”
Gently, the man stepped forward and worked the box from Rose’s fingers. Standing over her like that Rose could smell the scent of olive soap about him, so different from the worker’s sweat, or the sour stench of liquor on her father’s breath. Rose trembled. It was all too much, and she still had to go back and deal with her father. The man spoke low.
“Let it go Miss, and don’t let them see you beg. The men gossip and my… Lordship will be looking for tales of your father’s humiliation.”
Rose nodded, defeated. Stealing one last look she saw the solicitor place her keepsake in the cart beyond her reach before turning back to the unforgiving business of his list. As loathe as Rose was to admit it, the man had only spoken the cruel truth. Fight though she may, this was a battle she’d long since lost.
Behind her, Rose could hear Cook in an uproar, and so with a sigh she rushed back toward the house.
Widow Blanchard had been employed by the Tyler family for as far back as Rose could remember. Far more than just a cook, she had been their only indulgence in domestic help. She was a proud woman, one not prone to fits of sentimentality, but she seemed to have found a quiet dignity in her work, and over time had become a close confidant of Rose’s late mother. As the family’s fortunes had fallen Rose had watched Cook grow increasingly strict and stern, insisting that the humble farm house was kept in perfect order, that Rose never went out anything less than perfectly starched and combed, and leveling a stony silence on anyone who dared to bring up Peter’s indiscretions.
Rose had never seen Cook like this, running about red in the face and shouting. For a moment it was enough to shock Rose out of her own misery and she remembered; she was not the only one for whom the day had been trying. In the midst of her life’s work falling apart about her ears, Cook’s stately demeanor had been abandoned to her utter fury.
Rose’s heart stung with loyalty to the woman. They hadn’t been able to pay Cook her proper wages in months, and what income she’d lost now seemed unlikely to ever be recovered, yet here the good widow remained, huffing and gasping as she swore at movers twice her size.
A couple of burly tow-haired men, alike enough that they must have been twins, made their way across the courtyard carrying a large steamer trunk. They utterly disregarded Cook as she hollered at them.
“I’ll have your names for this, I will,” she shouted, swiping at the men with her apron. “It’s shameful! What right have you to a lady’s own things?”
Rose gasped and began to run as Cook faltered, collapsing in a dejected heap upon the stoop. There were tears running down the old woman’s face.
“It’s shameful. Shameful,” she protested, but the men had already disappeared.
As Rose approached Cook threw both hands out to her, grasping for Rose’s wrists and entreating her desperately.
“Oh, Miss Rose, it’s such a shameful fright. I tried to tell them, but they wouldn’t listen, all your things, your clothes, your undergarments, they’ve been packed up and taken to the manor house.”
Cook began to look sickly and Rose desperately wished for a glass of water to give the woman. She was too afraid to leave while Cook was in such a state, in order to fetch it. In any case the widow was still clutching her arm tightly in earnestness.
“I tried to tell Mr. Tyler, but he’s no use. What right have they? What right have they to a lady’s private things? It’s shameful, shameful.”
Careful, lest she upset her more, Rose helped the woman up and walked her back into the house, settling her on a low settee that had been deposited, for a time, just inside the small entryway of the house.
Rose tried to calm her, fighting to keep her voice level despite her own nerves.
“It’s alright Cook. I’m sure it’s all been a mistake. The things I have on will do for now. I’ll speak with Father and have this sorted.”
Of course it was a mistake. While Rose knew her Mother’s jewelry case would never fetch enough at auction to equal how much she herself prized it, the box at least was worth something. But her petticoats? Her drawers? Worn, and patched, and meticulously darned by Cook to extend their wear? They were beyond worthless. What use could his Lordship - could anyone - save herself have for such things?
Thinking back on the box Rose remembered what the solicitor had said. The auction was to be tonight. Perhaps… perhaps if they were very lucky some small thing could be done. Perhaps, Rose mused, patting the trembling hand of the fierce woman she’d known all her life, perhaps it would do Cook as much good to salvage something from this mess as it would herself.
Rose sat beside the woman, arranging her skirts modestly and furtively scanning the room to ensure none of his Lordship’s men were nearby.
“Cook,” Rose whispered, “there’s something I need you to do.”
Cook brightened a bit at the mention of being needed and nodded as Rose continued.
“When you get a chance, when no one will notice, follow me upstairs to Mother’s room.”
Cook squeezed Rose’s hand, and as discreetly as she could, Rose left her and made her way upstairs to the room that had once been her Mother’s. Ever since Mrs. Jacqueline’s death, it had sat empty, only seeing occupation during Rose’s brief visits, or when Cook came to chase dust from its corners. The room was frigid, Peter refusing to allow a fire to be stoked in his wife’s former quarters, and Rose was heartened to see it had, as yet remained untouched. Likely the movers preferred to address the more hospitable rooms first.
Rose shivered in both cold and anxiety as she gently shut the door behind her and made her way over to the small hearth beyond the bed. It would still be here. It had to be here.
As Peter Tyler’s drinking and gambling had begun to spiral out of control Rose had attempted to squirrel away what meager savings she could, hoping it would forestall catastrophe. The monies had never amounted to much, barely more than a handful of silvers, far short of what they would need to save the farm. But at the auction tonight, perhaps it could buy her the one thing that mattered most.
Holding her breath Rose reached up inside the sooty fireplace flue, running her fingers over the small ledge just there, and feeling for the small glass jar she had hidden. Retrieving it, Rose smiled for the first time that day as she heard the tinkling, jingling hope it contained.
There was a soft knock at the door and Rose heard Cook’s hushed voice whisper, “Rose, it’s me,” before the woman let herself in of her own accord.
Hastily, remembering the men outside, Rose unscrewed the glass jar and emptied it’s contents, crossing the room and pressing the money into Cook’s warm hand.
“Cook, I must beg of you a favor. Take this and go into town. My mother’s jewelry box, you know the one, with the mahogany inlay?” Cook nodded, it was likely she knew the late lady’s things even better than Rose herself did. “I need you to bid on it. I need you to buy it at the auction. Please Cook. It’s all I have left of her.”
For a silent second Widow Blanchard looked Rose in the eye, gripping Rose’s hand tightly where it pressed the money into her own. A moment of understanding passed between them; the young lady of the house, brought down in the world, ruined by circumstances outside of her control, and the elderly servant who had known her all her life. It occurred to Rose that this may well be among the last times she would ever be alone with the woman. It may very well be one of her last chances to say goodbye.
Faltering with the realization Rose opened her mouth. She didn’t know what to say, what the proper words were for a situation such as this. And like that the moment was gone. Brushing down her apron, Cook slipped the coins into her pocket, and straightened her back. She was once again the woman she’d always been, rigid, stately, no-nonsense. Cook patted the hair beneath her cap as she turned to go.
“As you wish, my Lady. But mind you see to it the men don’t ransack the place. And remember to speak to your Father about your things. I expect you’ll look a fright before the day is through.”
With the stern admonishment, and not a glance behind her, Cook was gone.
Rose dragged in a deep breath. A small weight had been lifted from her shoulders, but she knew the day’s trials were not yet over. Reluctantly, loathe to leave her Mother’s room and the small triumph she’d found there, Rose made her way back downstairs in search of her Father.
Rose found him alone in the empty dining room. A rolled up carpet in the corner and the lone wooden chair he was seated on, now all that was left of the overlarge furnishings that had once crowded the room. The whiskey bottle at his feet was three quarters empty and Rose watched its contents slosh around as he lifted it for another long pull. He reeked of the stuff. But his eyes lifted and gained focus as his daughter entered the room.
Did it count, Rose wondered, as disappointment if she’d honestly expected nothing more from him that day? She shook her head as she lifted the drink from his hands. It had been nearly full when she had left him earlier. Even knowing what a wreck the drink had made of her Father, for a moment, she was jealous of him. A part of her wished that she too could drown her sorrows, and fears, and lie there worthless on the floor, not lifting a finger to deal with any of this.
But she couldn’t. Life had to go on, even when all was lost. There was still the future to look to. Someone had to collect the meager belongings they had left and instruct the men to load them on their rented cart. Someone had to arrange their transport to the dingy hovel-of-a-tavern inn they would stay at that night. Someone had to ensure that, once there, Peter Tyler didn’t put himself further into debt with the barman than could be prevented. And someone, someone, had to figure out what came next. Because there was no plan in place, no safety for them, beyond the first few nights.
Perhaps, Rose thought, her mind already reeling, her Mother’s relations could be entreated upon to take them in. But they lived in the county westward and there would be the cost of transport to somehow figure out. She’d want to look presentable, proper despite impoverished, for Peter would surely look neither. Belatedly, Rose remembered she had little more than the clothes upon her back. She sighed, looking down at her Father. He would have to talk to his Lordship about that.
Peter Tyler groaned and lunged for the whiskey bottle, wheedling something unintelligible about his “poor, brave girl”. Rose dodged him easily, holding the drink outside of his grasp and shaking him by the shoulder with her free hand. He needed to sober up. It was nearly suppertime and it’d be a long walk to make it to the Manor and back before nightfall. They’d no money to rent a horse.
Seeing her deny him Peter grew surly, cursing under his breath, and swaying on his feet.
“Give me my drink, child! Or would you take from me what little I have left?”
Rose shook her head and backed away from him carefully, playing for time. She’d seen him like this before and knew it was useless to let him agitate her. Rose fought to keep her voice level, and clear, as she struggled to push some sense through Peter’s drunken muddle.
“Father, the drink can wait. There’s been a mistake and I need you to go to the Manor house and sort it with his Lordship.”
Peter staggered a bit on his feet and made as if to spit upon the floor.
“His Lordship?” he leered, voice icy behind it’s drunken slur. “I’d hang before I speak to his Lordship again. The cheat. Sittin’ up there in his big house, all high and mighty. Laughin’ at me, he is,” Peter snarled. “He made me grovel, Rose. Me! As if I wasn’t a man. As if I wasn’t a man every bit as good as him.”
Rose rubbed her temples, trying desperately to think of a way to get through to her Father. He’d reached the point of drunkenness where he felt nothing but contempt for a world out to get him. Yet if there was any hope for getting her things back Peter Tyler would have to grovel indeed. She knew Lord Posterior by reputation. He was a cruel man. If her father approached him like this his Lordship would deny him anything, no matter how worthless, for no reason other than to revel in her father’s humiliation.
Rose tried again, pleading silently for the drunkard to have some sense yet left.
“Father, please. You must go. There’s been a mistake. Cook said all my clothes were loaded onto the cart headed for the Manor. All my things,” Rose stressed, hoping that Peter could grasp the predicament. “I’ve nothing left but what I’m wearing.”
Peter’s shoulders drooped and his eyes focused blearily on the bottle in Rose’s hand, his righteous fury burnt out as quickly as it had come.
“’S not a mistake,” he mumbled, lunging once more for the drink. For a moment Rose barely understood him.
“Father, it’s not a mistake? What do you mean?”
With what seemed like the last heave he could possibly muster, Peter took advantage of Rose’s confusion and succeeded finally in retrieving his prize. He took a long, deep swill before answering her, his eyes carefully studying the floor.
“It’s not a mistake. It’s payment. For the debt.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Rose scoffed.
Her Father had gotten them into this mess, and as much as she may admonish herself later for her lack of patience, she was sick of his nonsense.
“What could his Lordship possibly want with my old dresses? How could they possibly pay of our debt?”
Peter Tyler’s entire body sagged and Rose could tell that whatever was on his mind, it shamed him enough even to penetrate the fog of drink he’d built up around himself throughout the day. Peter would not meet her eye. Instead he mumbled, half to himself, and half to the vaporous sympathy of his whiskey bottle.
“Everything of value his Lordship said,” Peter sniffed to himself, some secret bitter joke. “Well he’s getting that alright. The payment isn’t the dresses my girl. It’s you.”
On the edge of the stripped bed frame, in the room she’d slept in her whole life, Rose sat and contemplated the muddied tips of her shoes peeking out beneath the blue hem of her dress. The house had finally been emptied of anything that was worth anything, and outside she could hear the last of the workers trudging through the light rain that had begun to fall.
Outside her father would be mounting a cart with his whiskey bottle and few humble, personal, possessions to begin the trip into town. The cart with the auction items had left earlier that day, as had the stern dark-haired solicitor. All that would be left was the last cart, piled high with items of enough worth to be taken to his Lordship himself. The cart that would carry her away to a future she could not begin to conceive.
In the end Rose had railed and pleaded with her father, but it was no use. The papers had already been signed, the deal struck. In a month's time she was to wed Lord Posterior’s eldest son, Sir Oxytocin.
Rose had no illusions that this would be an elevation of her status. Oxytocin had been schooled abroad for much of her life, but she’d heard the rumors. Simple, they’d said. Bad blood. There’d been other rumors too, crueler ones, ones whispered when no one had thought a lady was listening.
And while it may have been easy to discount such gossip… there was little love lost between the foreign, ruling class of peptides and the local populace… Rose knew that even Lord Posterior himself did little to quash the stories. Lord Posterior, a man who’d once sent a father of four to the stocks for repeating a scandalous, and very true tale of his second son, Vasopressin’s indiscretions.
No, Lord Posterior had simply seen in her father an old, drunk, fool and sought to humiliate him to the greatest degree. He’d told her father he would take everything of value, and heartless man that his Lordship was, he’d done just that. Rose thought back to the solicitor’s advice earlier that day. Don’t beg. Had he known?
Rose thought back to the solicitor’s searching gaze, his hand in hers as he’d helped her up. He’d not smiled at her, his blue eyes had held little warmth, but she’d not seen cruelty there either.
No, Rose decided. Whether he’d known it or not, the solicitor had given her valuable advice. Lord Posterior would be looking for her shame, her humiliation. He’d taken her freedom, her future, and her choice away from her. But her pride? Her dignity? No. There were still some things of value that were her own.
Her decision made, Rose sat silently, trying to gather up about her what little bravery she had left. She’d need all of it for the rainy ride up to the manor house and the night that lay ahead. In time she heard a soft knock at the door, and at the sound of her call, Cook let herself in.
In truth Rose had quite forgotten about the woman, and the quest she’d entrusted to her. But a glance at the old woman’s haggard face told Rose to expect no success there. Cook removed a small purse and pressed it into Rose’s hand.
“I’m sorry Miss Rose, I offered all I had, but the bidding was too high.”
All I had, she’d said. Rose had little doubt that the stern, unsentimental widow had added to the bid what little money of her own she possessed. All that and the family still hadn’t paid her. Rose sighed and handed the bag of tinkling coins back to the woman.
“It’s alright Cook, we owe you wages. I should have offered this to you first anyway.”
Cook closed her fist around the coins. “No, miss. No you should’t have.”
Tears, hot and heavy, began to blur Rose’s vision, and there, in her old room, with the door closed and Cook before her, she allowed herself to let a few fall, before dashing them away with her palm.
“Did you know, Cook?”
Primly, properly, the old woman sat down beside Rose on the bed and offered her a handkerchief. It was an old-fashioned lacy thing and smelled of lavender and the memories Rose had cherished in her childhood days.
“Not before. I do now.”
And when Rose had dried her face, the Widow Blanchard clasped her hand and waited beside her for the men to come and take Rose away.