The floor was hard against my bare knees. My hands were cracked and reddened from the lye Mrs Peters insisted on using. My shoulders and back ached from scrubbing the same spot over and over, creating thick plumes of suds and fumes to make my eyes water.
I had been tasked with the cleaning of the kitchen. It was another of Mrs Peter’s polite cruelties disguised as request. The kitchen collected grease and dust the way a miser hoarded pennies. She took great pleasure in giving me the responsibility of bringing it to a standard since Nan took a turn and had to go back to Warwick.
Her disdain, dressed in decorum had made my month in service feel like an eternity. My references were sound. Mr Lewis was not an effusive man, but he had listed my qualities with clarity.
Mrs Geraldine Peters had set herself to the task of instructing me in misery. She had gone over to Reverend Granger’s house, such was her confidence in my obedience.
Arthur the stable hand had gone with Mr Peters to purchase a colt from auction. So I did not even have him to keep me company. The sun had risen to a great, furious height already when I heard the sound of footsteps.
I glanced upwards. I met his warm, brown eyes. Over the lye-infused steam, I caught the scent of him, his musk, leathery and with hints of sandalwood. He wore a suit of faded velvet, with a silver watch chain dangling from his waistcoat. His shirt was silken, faded to shades of autumn that changed wherever the light struck them. He had mismatched buttons of pearl that were sewn on with practiced care.
‘How may I help you, sir?’
He chuckled and scratched the stubble on his chin.
‘Oh no, Miss, it is a matter of how I may help you. I have useful wares to sell if you’ve a mind to look.’
I stopped scrubbing and sat up, rubbed the small of my back with my palms to alleviate the ache.
‘A mind to look is all the currency I have, Sir.’
He smiled and gestured outside.
‘The finest coin of all, some would say.’
I sighed with amused impatience. He had an easy smile and large, muscular hands. The thought came to me of being caught with him and it made my stomach churn.
‘You should go, sir. My mistress doesn’t take to peddlers.’
He frowned and leaned forward.
‘And you’d rather be here on your knees when you could come outside for a few minutes, find something you’d like.’
He gestured to the warm, bright day behind him. It was his accomplice.
I had worked since breakfast. A moment with him if only to see him off the grounds would be a small reward for her efforts.
I got to my feet. He flashed a grin at me over his shoulder and I followed him outside.
His pack was by the gate, awash with scarves and trinkets tied on. He reached inside and retrieved a bolt of silken material with a theatrical flourish and laid it at my feet.
‘A little theatre brings fire to the soul.’
He moved between the pack and decanted the contents onto the silk.
A handful of button that made wondrous play of the sunlight where each one caught it.
Reels of coloured cotton and needles of various sizes and configurations, gleaming steel and glistening bone.
Silk shirts with monograms stitched into the breast.
A thick shawl woven with rainbow colours and patches of different pieces of fur.
Skirts and bonnets, good but worn from previous use.
If his wares had been too fine, my suspicions would have drawn me away. Yet their quality had weathered a few seasons.
He had one more item to offer. A long necked bottle stoppered with a wax seal. An amber fluid sat at the base, heavy and thick.
‘Trust a tinker to sell a potion.’
He shrugged his shoulders.
‘Regardless of whether I am a tinker or a pedler, I offer wares of import and import. Things that a cunning woman might use.’
I pointed at the bottle.
”What might a cunning woman use that for?’
He picked it up and handed it to me. The liquid was warm through the thick glass of the bottle.
‘The buyer decides before the seller has cause to speak.’
I tilted the bottle, watched the liquid play within it.
‘Unless it’s a salve for my hands, it’s pretty but useless.’
He curved his silken lips into a smile.
‘For a bit of bread and a cup of water, it’s yours.’
Mrs Peters brooked no tradespeople or unannounced visitors, so I was already at risk so bread and water made no difference. I glanced at the bottle, wondering how the seal of wax would crack beneath my fingers.
‘What’s it called?’
I blanched and started to back away.He shook his head.
‘It’s no poison. It thwarts despondence and lends adventure.’
I blushed and looked away.
‘Do I look like I need those?’
‘Every woman does.’ he said.
‘A few glasses of ale does that, I find.’
He laughed and closed my fingers over the curve of the bottle.
‘A drop between your eyebrows before bed and you’ll be preaching its virtues.’
The silver watch chain on his waistcoat caught the sun in a sharp flash of light.
‘Or decrying its vices.’
He smiled and took a step backwards.
‘The difference between the two is a matter of opinion, Miss.’
My heart thumped a little faster at the slow curl of his voice.
‘Come, I’ll feed and water you, sir, but not more.’
He bowed from the waist and grinned at me.
‘I like your spirit, Miss, it’s a true beguilement.’
I cut him two thick slices of coarse bread, buttered it in thick layers and drew up cool water from the well. Despite his fancy words, he ate with a primal lack of self-consciousness.
Sharing this simple meal with him put me between duty and pleasure. Duty wore the grim face of Mrs Peters, smeared with dust and kitchen grease.
Pleasure sat across from me. He had a smear of butter on the cleft of his chin. The bottle sat on the table and I kept glancing at it when the caramel pools of his eyes grew too enticing.
‘Try a drop.’ he said
My hands shook at his directness.
‘What if it should render me insensible?’
He laughed and finished the last piece of bread.
‘A drop on the forehead would lend you the vigour to get this kitchen finished.’
His challenge was indirect but implicit. He held no judgements to thwart me and I cracked the seal with a thrill of greed. I decanted a single drop onto my fingertip.
I dabbed it between my eyebrows. The skin tingled and grew warm. The warmth moved downwards, gaining power on its descent. A giddiness enveloped me and the muscles in my body relaxed into a state of utter bliss.
I awoke to the sound of amused consternation. Mrs Peters stared at me in disbelief. I was still at the stool and flinched, preparing to apologise for my slovenly ways.
Until I looked around at the kitchen.
Every visible surface was scrubbed, swept and polished. A pot of stew bubbled happily on the stove and gave off a meaty aroma that made our stomachs yawn with hunger.
‘You’ve outdone yourself.’
The lack of effusiveness did not make her compliment any less surprising. The tinker had gone along with the bottle, but I was too stunned by the state of the kitchen to notice it then.
He had placed it in my effects, with a sheaf of paper wrapped around it.
You did not ask, you simply trusted to your instincts. Consider this a gift, and I give those without expectation of reward or acknowledgement. I will walk in this part of the world again soon and I will call on you.
I hid the bottle. Something of me hid alongside it, flushed and covetous by what had happened.
Three nights later, he returned.
Three nights after that, I left with him.
Mrs Peters would have offered references worthy of being mounted in a frame or adapted to the stage but I had no need of them.
He did not need a maid. Not in the places he took me to.