Miss Hampton: Much Ado About Nothing
It is always Wenceslas. Every year, come rain or shine, they sing Good King Wenceslas, the boys with their voices like little angels. It's enough to make the hairs stand up on a body's neck.
Annie doesn’t like it, of course. She fancies herself as of these modern misses, dreaming of the fiddle-faddle that she sees down at the picture-house. She's a right one for dancing, and she reads paperback novels about women who are no better than they should be. Not that she's ever been further than Eton, for all her fancy talk of London. Huntercombe born and bred, she is, and in service at the Manor like her mother was before her, though her mother was before my time, for she handed in her notice when she got married. Girls did in the old days. It was only proper.
Most of what Annie says is just talk, and I tells her so, for I am not one to mince my words. "Annie," I says. "Keep your head down, and serve the mistress." And she does, I'll grant her that. She does what she's told, and she's a good little worker. She shows no discontent in front of the mistress, and is as quiet as mouse when visitors come. She's worth two of the chit of a girl who came before her, who was all sweetness and light when you talked to her, but shirked on her jobs something terrible.
But where was I? Oh yes. Carols. Good King Wenceslas. Annie, as I was saying, doesn't like it when they sing the same carol every year. "Why don't they sing something modern, rather than this boring old-fashioned stuff?" she says, but only to me afterwards, and never in front of the mistress, oh no, and never in front of the singers, either. I think she has a bit of thing about Paul Stanton, though he's all of four years younger than her, and not much of a looker. It's the music, I think. She thinks a musical man is full of passion and romance, like in the stories. It's shocking, the things they let young girls read nowadays. It gives them all sorts of notions.
Me, I don't hold with these new-fangled Christmas songs that you hear on the wireless nowadays. Christmas is a time for old traditions. I like to think that Miss Greythorne's great-grandmammy sat in this same hall and listened to carol-singers singing the same songs. Call me a sentimental old woman. Perhaps, in my way, I'm as sentimental as Annie, but I trust that I am not so silly.
"I wonder why she lets them come," Annie said to me just this afternoon, as we made the punch. "She doesn't seem to do Christmas."
"Who's she, the cat's mother?" I rebuked her, for nice girls don't call anyone "she", let alone grand ladies like Miss Greythorne.
"Miss Greythorne," Annie said. She never seems properly humbled by being put in her place. In my time, girls like her were seen but not heard. "There's no decorations, just that great log Mr Bates brought in before he went on holiday. I wonder why."
"It is not for you to wonder," I told her, and would say no more about it, even though she twittered around me for the time it took to measure out the spices.
Not that I always practice what I preach, and may the good Lord strike me down for it. Miss Greythorne is an Enigma. That's what I told my sister the last time I had a holiday. I thought so all along, from the very first day I saw her.
I'm not from round these parts myself. I come from Stroud, over in Gloucestershire, but I went into service when I was sixteen, and when the young mistress married and moved to Slough, I went with her. For twenty-five years, I worked for her, first as maid and then as housekeeper, but time passed, and her husband divorced her, and she passed away in nineteen sixty-one, not yet forty-five. The day after the funeral, her son came to me and told me that my services were no longer required. "It's rather old-fashioned, having a servant in this day and age," he told me, "and there's nothing for you to do, anyway, now that mother's gone. You can stay here while you find somewhere else to go, but I'm selling this place as soon as the paperwork is sorted." And him just a green boy, barely twenty, for all that he tried to talk like a man of the world.
So there I was, without a livelihood, and still grieving for my poor mistress, God rest her soul. I was at my wits' end, I can tell you, but then my friend Edith told me that her friend, Irene, had heard that a Miss Greythorne of Huntercombe Manor was looking for a new housekeeper and cook, because the old one had left to be nearer her daughter who had moved to Inverness, if you'll credit it. Inverness! That's all the way up in Scotland, and everyone knows what the Scots are like. But it takes all sorts to make a world, as my old Dad used to say, God rest his soul.
Where was I? Oh yes. I was telling you how I came to be here, at Huntercombe Manor. Not that there's much more to tell, if I'm honest. I dilly-dallied for a few days, then decided to make an approach in writing to Miss Greythorne. After all, I had nothing to lose, I told myself. Miss Greythorne was offering accommodation and a good rate of pay, although of course it is not done to talk about such things. And, to cut a long story short, I got the position.
I have been here for nine years now. No, I tell a lie – for nearly ten. March, it was, when I arrived, because I remember the daffodils in the Manor grounds. Nine Christmases I have been here. Or does that make it ten? I was never good with numbers.
Ah, but I have seen many changes. Miss Greythorne is not one of those mistresses who expects her employees (that's the word Annie uses) to stay in the house all the time. She is an undemanding mistress, and a lot of my time is my own. I have made friends in the village, and I have watched its children grow.
Take the carol-singers, for example – part of the enormous Stanton brood. It took me two years to remember which one was which, and I'm normally very good with faces, if I do say so myself. People are so interesting, don't you think? Annie can go to the village and back without noticing a single person, and when I ask her who she saw, she can't remember. "That old lady," she sometimes says, after a lot of thought. "You know, the one with the hat. I can't remember her name." I ask you! It is not always fit for me to talk to them, if I am on an errand for the mistress, but I do at least notice them, and greet them by name. Modern people are so cut off, each in their own little world. I don't understand it, but I suppose it takes all sorts to make a world.
I remember when I first saw the Stantons, ten years back, when the daffodils were in bloom, and I was new to Huntercombe. I was walking to the Post Office, when I saw a lady struggling along with six children! Three of them were old enough for school, and were busy trying to tell her what they did in lessons that day. That was Barbara – she was six, I think – and the twins, Robin and Paul, who were seven or eight. Mary was four, and was tugging at her Ma's skirt, trying to get some attention. James was two or three, and was prodding something at the side of the road – a spider, I think, or some other nasty thing like that. You know how boys can be. And the baby, Will, was sitting in his pram, watching everything in that solemn way that babies have.
I can never resist babies. "Hello, sweetheart," I said, looking into the pram. "What's your name?"
James came towards me with muddy hands. "He's Will," he said. "He's our baby. I used to be the baby, but I'm a big boy now. My name's James. Will can't talk. He's stupid."
"He's watching everything," Mrs Stanton said, "and taking it in. He'll talk when he's good and ready – probably whole sentences." She offered me her hand. "I'm Alice Stanton," she said. "You must be the new housekeeper at the Manor."
"Miss Hampton," I told her.
"And he can't walk," James butted in. "He goes like this" – he mimed a toddler's walk – "and falls over. It's funny."
Mary tossed her hair. "I could walk before I was one. I'm clevererer than James and much clevererer than Will."
"You're all just babies," Robin said loftily. "You can't kick a football. You don't even go to school. I'm on the red readers now."
"Children!" Mrs Stanton smiled apologetically. "It was good to meet you, Miss Hampton. I'd better get this rabble home."
I saw them several times over the next year. By the summer, Will was walking alongside James, leaving Mrs Stanton to push an empty pram. He still didn't talk, though, and Miss Pettigrew in the Post Office told me that Mrs Stanton was worried. I didn't know them well, of course, so I don't know when he started talking, but I do remember him telling me just before Christmas that it was his birthday, so he was talking by then.
It's strange, the things one remembers.
Will didn't come with the others carol-singing that year, of course. That was the first year I heard the Stanton family sing Good King Wenceslas. Stephen sang the king's part, with his lovely deep brown voice, and Robin sang the page. Max and Gwen were there, too, and Paul played the flute, his little face so earnest. Oh, and Barbara, too. Beautiful, it was. The old songs are always the best.
After the singing, Miss Greythorne invited the older ones to take some punch. "What lovely singing," she told them, "and what lovely playing, of course, Paul."
"I made some mistakes." Paul's cheeks were red.
"But you will learn from them," the mistress said, "and you will not make the same mistakes again. Every year, you will play better and better, and when you are as old as Stephen here, you will play so beautifully that people listening will believe there is magic in your flute."
It is not for me to speak badly of my mistress, but I think this was foolish talk, to fill a boy's head with such hopes. But maybe she was right after all, for Paul stood here just yesterday, as old as Stephen was then, and his playing was enough to make a body forget about breathing.
"I won't be here next year," Stephen told her, back then. "I'm joining the Navy as soon as I finish my A-levels."
"But there are others to carry the flame," Miss Greythorne said gravely. "Other brothers will come, even as you older ones move on. One day, young Will will sing the part Robin sang so beautifully this evening, and… another one will sing the king. But after that, there will be no more singing."
She says things like that sometimes, Miss Greythorne. She's a rum old bird, as my friend Edith would say. Not that she's ever anything other than a perfect lady. She can't walk, of course, but the strange thing is that it is impossible to feel sorry for her. I thought I would, but she seems to… defy pity, as it were. I can't really explain it.
It was Annie who noticed another strange thing about her. "You know all those things that Miss Greythorne's father collected – those things we're not allowed to clean?" I nodded. "Have you ever wondered why there are no pictures of him – of her father, I mean? They must have been close, for her to keep his collection, but there's nothing…"
"It is not for us to wonder about such things," I told her sternly. It was true, though. After Annie said that, I started noticing it myself. I even talked to some of the older villagers about Mr Greythorne, bringing it casual-like into the conversation, because it is not fitting to pry. The thing is this: no-one seemed to remember him. Oh, of course they remembered seeing him. They remembered what he looked like, and they all remembered watching his coffin pass on the way to the churchyard, but none of them had any actual memories of him. It's strange.
But I will say no more about that. As I said to Annie, it is not for me to wonder about such things. Miss Greythorne is my mistress, and that is that. She is a good mistress, and if she has her secrets… Well, everyone has their secrets, and the rich more than most.
But I have rambled enough. You should have told me to stop. I talk too much – that's my weakness. I think it comes from being in service. When I am on duty, I can't talk much at all, for it isn't fitting. So when a kind gentleman like you comes along and is willing to indulge me, my tongue runs away from me. But it's not getting any warmer out here, and I need to get to the shop and back before dark, and I'm sure you have a home to go to, and don't want to waste time out in the cold listening to an old woman like me.
What's that? You want to know more about the carol-singers? Oh, silly me! That's what you asked in the first place, wasn't it? The carol-singers. Let's see… They were a little late, so there we were, all lined up in the hall, waiting for them as if we were courtiers waiting for the king. Now, that's a strange thought for me to have. But there was something in the way the mistress was waiting. Oh, outwardly she was all serene, but I've known her for nearly ten years, and I could tell that she was expectant-like. The new butler was as well.
I haven't told you about the new butler! Mr Bates is the butler, and he is a decent enough chap, I suppose. He doesn't talk much, and there is very little humour in him, but he does his job well enough, and he lets me get on with mine. I have known worse. Every year, he takes a week off in the summer to visit his sister in Weston-Super-Mare, but this year, he decided to take Christmas off instead. Regular as clockwork, he was, with his holiday in June, but this year he went off in December. He won't get much paddling in Weston, I can tell you, for the snow is that thick outside, and it's as cold as it was back in '63.
He didn't even have the decency to tell us. Just upped and went one morning without a word, and there was this new chap in his place, all dressed up and fancy, as if he's always been here. "Do you think he's killed Mr Bates and buried him in the garden?" Annie asked, her eyes like saucers. I ask you! Too many paperback novels, that's what I said, and too many trips to the pictures.
Not that I don't know what she means. The new butler is a perfect gentleman, but there's something about him… Maybe it's because he's so tall, towering over the mistress in her chair. Maybe it's his eyes… Oh, such eyes they are. If I was thirty years younger, and he was thirty years younger, I think I might be getting as silly as Annie. But maybe not. There's something dangerous about those eyes.
Oh, hark at me. Maybe it's not just Annie who's letting her imagination run away with her. He's a perfect gentleman, as I've said – though perhaps too much of a gentleman. He doesn't look like a butler. He looks like a lord who should have a butler of his own. He tries to talk humble-like to the mistress, but it doesn't really work. He sounds like her equal, but she doesn't seem to mind. I think she likes him more than she likes Bates. But Annie, though, thinks she is a little bit afraid of him.
Where was I? Oh yes. Waiting. Like I said, we were waiting for the carol-singers. There were no decorations in the hall, except for a large branch of holly. The mistress and the butler looked tense, as I said, but they visibly relaxed when the doorbell finally rang.
In they came, just like they've always done, though it felt more magical this year, somehow, probably because of the snow. They sang a lovely lullaby, and it was enough to give me a lump in my throat. Then God rest ye merry and The holly and the ivy, to a tune I didn't know. And then, of course, it was Wenceslas, just like always. I do like traditions. They feel like a… like a protection against the bad things that are happening in the world. Oh, don't look at me like that. I'm being silly, aren't I?
James and Will sang the page boy, of course, with their voices like little angels. I thought Robin was good all those years before, but those two are like something sent down from heaven. But then came the real eye-opener. The new butler, Mr Lyon, joined in, and sang the words of the king, joining in with Robin and the others. He had a good voice, too, but all too soon the end of the carol came, and that was it for another year.
They stayed for a little while, of course, to share some punch. Will had some for the first time; maybe that was why his eyes were shining so. Barbara and Mary came over to talk to me and to Annie. Barbara is trying to set up a village drama group, and has recruited us both to join it. Annie is terrified by the merest thought, and still doesn't know quite why she ended up saying yes. I've told Barbara that I'll make costumes, but that's as far as it goes. Ma would turn in her grave at the thought of a daughter of hers going on the stage.
No, I don't know what the others were talking about. Barbara and Mary were in the way, and I couldn't see Robin or Paul, or another of the others. I do know that Paul and Will went off somewhere to look at some old flutes from Mr Greythorne's collection, but Barbara was talking about scripts and lines and auditions, so I couldn't really pay attention.
I heard Will scream, of course. No-one could have missed it. Barbara ran after him immediately. I can say that for her – she's a good older sister. They all are, in that family. Sisters or brothers, I mean. They all look after each other, and they're particularly protective of Will, who's the baby. I feel quite sorry for him sometimes. He'll be the baby in that family for life. I know how it feels, because I was the youngest of my family, and my sister still tries to baby me sometimes, even though I'm nearly sixty years old.
I never really found out why Will screamed as he did. When they all reappeared, I could tell that the others were a bit annoyed with him, so I expect it was for nothing. He's never struck me as a fanciful child, though, and if anyone in that family was going to try a practical joke, it would be James.
Not that it really matters. Farewells were said, and they went on their way, and the carol-singing was over for another year. I don't know why you're asking me about it, Mr Mitothin. After all, nothing happened.