First published in 1945
Once upon a day an old butler called Eldon lay dying in his room attended by the head housemaid, Miss Agatha Burch. From time to time the other servants separately or in chorus gave expression to proper sentiments and then went on with what they had been doing.
One name he uttered over and over, 'Ellen.'
The pointed windows of Mr Eldon's room were naked glass with no blinds or curtains. For this was in Eire where there is no blackout.
Came a man's laugh. Miss Burch jerked, then the voice broke out again. Charley Raunce, head footman, was talking outside to Bert his yellow pantry boy. She recognized the voice but could not catch what was said.
'… on with what I was on with,' he spoke, 'you should clean your teeth before ever you have anything to do with a woman. That's a matter of personal hygiene. Because I take an interest in you for which you should be thankful. I'm sayin' you want to take it easy my lad, or you'll be the death of yourself.'
The lad looked sick.
'A spot of john barley corn is what you are in need of,' Raunce went on, but the boy was not having any.
'Not in there,' he said in answer, quavering, 'I couldn't.'
'How's that? You know where he keeps the decanter don't you? Surely you must do.'
'Not cut of that room I couldn't.'
'Go ahead, don't let a little thing worry your guts,' Raunce said. He was a pale individual, paler now. 'The old man's on with his Ellen, 'e won't take notice.'
'But there's Miss Burch.'
'Is that so? Then why didn't you say in the first place? That's different. Now you get stuck into my knives and forks. I'll handle her.'
Raunce hesitated, then went in. The boy looked to listen as for a shriek. The door having been left ajar he could hear the way Raunce put it to her.
'This is my afternoon on in case they take it into their heads to punish the bell,' he told her. 'If you like I'll sit by him for a spell while you go get a breath of air.'
'Very good then,' she replied, 'I might.'
'That's the idea Miss Burch, you take yourself out for a stroll. It'll fetch your mind off.'
'I shan't be far. Not out of sight just round by the back. You'd call me, now, if he came in for a bad spell?'
Charley reassured her. She came away. Bert stood motionless his right hand stiff with wet knives. That door hung wide once more. Then, almost before Miss Burch was far enough to miss it, was a noise of the drawer being closed. Raunce came back, a cut-glass decanter warm with whisky in his hands. The door stayed gaping open.
'Go ahead, listen,' he said to Bert, 'it's meat and drink at your age, I know, an old man dying but this stuff is more than grub or wine to me. That's what. Let's get us behind the old door.'
To do so had been ritual in Mr Eldon's day. There was cover between this other door, opened back, and a wall of the pantry. Here they poured Mrs T.'s whisky. 'Ellen,' came the voice again, 'Ellen.'
At a rustle Raunce stuck his head out while Bert, farther in because he was smallest, could do no more than peek the other way along a back passage, his eyes on a level with one of the door hinges. Bert saw no one. But Charley eyed Edith, one of two under-housemaids.
She stood averted watching that first door which stayed swung back into Mr Eldon's room. Not until he had said, 'hello there,' did she turn. Only then could he see that she had stuck a peacock's feather above her lovely head, in her dark-folded hair. 'What have you?' he asked pushing the decanter out to the front edge so much as to say, 'look what I've found.'
In both hands she held a gauntlet glove by the wrist. He could tell that it was packed full of white unbroken eggs.
'Why you gave me a jump,' she said, not startled.
'Look what I've got us,' he answered, glancing at the decanter he held out. Then he turned his attention back where perhaps she expected, onto the feather in her hair.
'You take that off before they can set eyes on you,' he went on, 'and what's this? Eggs? What for?' he asked. Bert poked his head out under the decanter, putting on a kind of male child's grin for girls. With no change in expression, without warning, she began to blush. The slow tide frosted her dark eyes, endowed them with facets. 'You won't tell,' she pleaded and Charley was about to give back that it depended when a bell rang. The indicator board gave a chock. 'Oh all right,' Raunce said, coming out to see which room had rung. Bert followed sheepish.
Charley put two wet glasses into a wooden tub in the sink, shut that decanter away in a pantry drawer. 'Ellen,' the old man called faintly. This drew Edith's eyes back towards the butler's room. 'Now lad,' Raunce said to Bert, 'I'm relying on you mind to see Mrs Welch won't come out of her kitchen to knock the whisky off. ' He did not get a laugh. Both younger ones must have been listening for Mr Eldon. The bell rang a second time. 'O. K.,' Raunce said, 'I'm coming. And let me have that glove back,' he went on. 'I'll have to slap it on a salver to take in some time.'
'Yes Mr Raunce,' she replied.
'Mister is it now,' he said, grinning as he put on his jacket. When he was gone she turned to Bert. She was short with him. She was no more than three months older, yet by the tone of voice she might have been his mother's sister.
'Well he'll be Mr Raunce when it's over,' she said. 'Will Mr Eldon die?' Bert asked, then swallowed. 'Why surely,' says she giving a shocked giggle, then passing a hand along her cheek.
Meantime Charley entered as Mrs Tennant yawned. She said to him, 'Oh yes I rang didn't I, Arthur,' she said and he was called by that name as every footman from the first had been called, whose name had really been Arthur, all the Toms, Harrys, Percys, Victors one after the other, all called Arthur. 'Have you seen a gardening glove of mine? One of a pair I brought back from London?'
'Ask if any of the other servants have come across it will you? Such a nuisance.'
'And, oh tell me, how is Eldon?'
'Much about the same I believe Madam.'
'Dear dear. Yes thank you Arthur. That will be all. Listen though. I expect Doctor Connolly will be here directly.'
He went out, shutting the mahogany door without a sound. After twenty trained paces he closed a green baize door behind him. As it clicked he called out, 'Now me lad she wants that glove and don't forget.'
'The old gardening glove Edith went birds'-nesting with,' Raunce replied. 'Holy Moses look at the clock,' he went on, 'ten to three and me not on me bed. Come on look slippy.' He whipped out the decanter while Bert provided those tumblers that had not yet been dried. 'God rest his soul,' Raunce added in a different tone of voice then carried on, 'Wet glasses? Where was you brought up? No we'll have two dry ones thank you,' he cried. 'Get crackin' now. Behind the old door.' Upon this came yet another double pitiful appeal to Ellen. 'And there's another thing, Mrs T. she still calls me Arthur. But it will be Mr Raunce to you d'you hear?'
'E ain't dead yet.'
'Nor he ain't far to go before he will be. Oh dear. Yes and that reminds me. Did you ever notice where the old man kept that black book of his and the red one?'
'What d'you mean? I never touched 'em.'
'Don't be daft. I never said you did did I? But he wouldn't trouble to watch himself in front of you. Times out of mind you must have seen.'
'Not me I never.'
'We shan't make anything out of you, that's one thing certain,' Raunce stated. "There's occasions I despair altogether.' He went on, 'You mean to stand and tell me you've never so much as set eyes on 'em, not even to tell where they was kept.'