Chasing Cassandra

Page 63

“Did Mr. Severin tell you I’m going to live here?” she asked.

Bazzle nodded. “Yer ’is missus now,” he said shyly.

“I am.”

“I likes that pig song you sang to me,” he ventured. Cassandra laughed. “I’ll sing it for you later. But first I have a confession to make.” She crooked her finger for him to come closer, and he obeyed cautiously. “I’m a little nervous, moving into a new house,” she whispered. “I don’t know where anything is.”

“It’s awful big,” he told her emphatically.

“It is,” she agreed. “Will you take me around and show it to me?”

He nodded, a grin spreading across his face.

Tom stood and reached for Cassandra, bringing her up with him. He looked down at her with a faint frown. “Sweet, you would do better to have me show you the house. Or Mrs. Dankworth, if you like. You’re not going to receive a comprehensive tour from a nine- or ten year-old boy.”

“You show it to me later,” she whispered, and stood on her toes to kiss his chin. “At the moment, I’m not trying to learn about the house, but about Bazzle.”

He gave her a baffled glance. “What is there to learn?”

CASSANDRA REACHED DOWN for Bazzle’s hand, which he gave willingly, and he towed her through the house, starting with the bottom floor. They went to the kitchen, where he showed her the dumbwaiter closet that a tier of shelves connected by a frame could be lifted from the kitchen to the dining room. “They puts the food in there,” Bazzle explained, “and pulls this rope to make it go up. But people can’t go in there, even if their legs is tired.” He shrugged. “Too bad.”

Next, he showed her the combination pantry and larder. “They locks it every night,” he warned her. “So eats yer victuals at dinner, even the beets, ’cause ye can’t eat noffing after.” He paused before whispering conspiratorially, “But Cook allus leaves a snack for me in the bread box. I’ll share, if yer ’ungry.”

They visited the scullery and servants’ hall, but cut a wide swath around the housekeeper’s room, from which Mrs. Dankworth apparently liked to leap out and make you go wash your hands and neck in the scullery.

They reached the boot room, which contained shelves and rows of hat hooks, an umbrella stand, and a table of equipment for cleaning and polishing footwear. The air was scented of leather wax and boot blacking. A small casement window near the ceiling admitted light from outside. “This is my room,” Bazzle said proudly.

“What do you do here?” Cassandra asked.

“Every night I washes the mud from the shoes and boots, and makes ’em shiny, and then I’m orf to bed.”

“And where is your bedroom?”

“Bed’s right ’ere,” Bazzle said brightly, and opened a wooden cupboard. It was a box bed, built into a recessed space in the wall, and fitted with a mattress and bedclothes.

Cassandra stared at it without blinking. “You sleep in the boot room, dear?” she asked very softly.

“A good little bed,” he said cheerfully, reaching over to pat the mattress. “Never ’ad one before.”

Cassandra reached down and slowly drew him closer, smoothing the shiny ruffled locks of his hair. “You’re about to outgrow it,” she murmured, her thoughts swarming, her throat tight with indignation. “I’ll make sure your next one is bigger. And nicer.”

Bazzle leaned his head against her tentatively, and let out a deep, happy sigh. “You smells like flowers.”

“NO, I DIDN’T know it was the boot room,” Tom said irritably, when Cassandra confronted him in an upstairs bedroom. He had been taken aback and disgruntled when she’d approached him with tight-lipped displeasure, all vestiges of their honeymoon bliss completely gone. “Mrs. Dankworth told me it was a room close to hers, so she could help him if he needed something during the night.”

“He would never go to her for help. He’s convinced she would only try to wash him.” Cassandra paced back and forth across the elegant bedroom, her arms folded tightly across her chest. “He’s sleeping in a cupboard, Tom!”

“In a nice, clean bed,” he countered. “It’s better than the rat-infested slum he was living in before.”

She gave him a withering glance. “He can’t go through the rest of his life being grateful for the bare minimum and saying ‘Well, it’s better than a rat-infested slum.’”

“What do you want for him?” Tom asked with forced patience, leaning his shoulder against one of the solid rosewood bed posters. “To have his own room on the third floor with the other servants? Done. Now, may we focus on something other than Bazzle?”

“He’s not a servant. He’s a little boy, living among adults, working as an adult … being robbed of his last chance at childhood.”

“Some of us aren’t allowed childhoods,” Tom said curtly.

“He doesn’t belong anywhere, to anyone. He can’t live between worlds, neither fish nor fowl, never knowing what his place is.”

“Damn it, Cassandra—”

“And what will happen when you and I have children? He’ll have to grow up near a family, watching from the outside, never being invited in. It’s not fair to him, Tom.”

“It was bloody good enough for me!” he snapped, with the force of a rifle shot.

Cassandra blinked, some of her anger clearing away. She turned to look at him as silence weighted the room. Her husband’s face was averted, but she saw that his color had heightened. He was tense in every muscle, struggling to contain his emotions.

When he could bring himself to speak, his voice was cool and measured. “When the Paxtons took me in, I had the option of sharing a footman’s room or sleeping on a pallet in the kitchen, near the stove. The footman’s room was too small as it was. I chose the pallet. I slept on it every night for years, and folded it up every morning, and I was grateful. Sometimes I ate with the family, but most often I ate alone in the kitchen. I never thought of asking Mr. Paxton for more. It was enough to sleep somewhere safe and clean, and not go hungry. More than enough.”

No, it wasn’t, Cassandra thought, her heart wrenching.

“Eventually I was able to afford a room at a lodging house,” Tom continued. “I continued to work for Mr. Paxton, but I started to manage projects and solve engineering problems for other companies. I began to earn money. The Paxtons invited me to dinner now and then.” A short, humorless laugh escaped him. “The strange part was, I never felt comfortable at their dinner table. I felt as if I should eat in the kitchen.”

He was quiet for a long time then, staring distantly at the wall as if memories were playing across it. Although his body appeared to have relaxed, his hand had clenched around the bedpost until the tips of his fingers were white.

“What caused your falling-out?” Cassandra dared to ask, her gaze locked on him.

“I felt … something … for one of Paxton’s daughters. She was a pretty sort, a bit of a flirt. I wanted … I thought …”

“You asked if you could court her?”

A single nod.

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