Murder At Muirfield – Episode 03

IN the end, the interview lasted no more than five minutes. Mr Dawton pronounced himself satisfied with me and before I knew it I was sitting in the carriage with my luggage at my feet and the horses were clip-clopping me away from all that I knew.
He seemed a vague sort of gentleman, my new employer, as if his thoughts were far away inside his head. So I stared out of the carriage window as the landscape passed by. It was early autumn and the fields were all golden brown and full of geese and small brown birds feasting.
Mr Dawton had directed his driver to drop me at the side of the house so that I could use the servants’ entrance at the back.
It was not what I’d expected. I’d thought to find Muirfield Hall a bleak sort of place deep in the moors. In fact, the house was set amongst woodlands and I glimpsed the high walls of a large garden at the side of it. Beyond the woods, the inevitable moor and marsh began to take over, stretching to the low hills on the skyline.
I went inside and a girl in a maid’s uniform smiled at me.
“Are you the new kitchen maid then?”
“Kitchen maid?” I said in dismay. “I was told it was a housemaid’s position.” The truth was that being a kitchen maid was drudgery compared to being a housemaid, and even it was terrible hard work.
“I’m Gracie,” the girl said with another shy smile. “I’ll tell Mrs Smith you’re here. She’s the housekeeper and will let you know your duties.”
Mrs Smith appeared and beckoned me into a room. It was plainly decorated but warm and cosy, and I realised this was her own sitting-room as befitted her station.
She was a small woman, not as tall as me, but she had an air of authority. Her keys rattled as she sat down and indicated that I should, too.
“Welcome to Muirfield,” she said. “You and I will have no cross words between us as long as you work hard here. You will be helping in the house and in the kitchen with Cook. Now, Gracie will find you a uniform and you can get started.”
I opened and shut my mouth. I had questions. I was curious about this new place. But Mrs Smith had risen and was going out of the door. My impression of her was that she was efficient but not unkind.
Gracie found me and pointed to a cupboard where I was to fetch my maid’s clothes.
“Ellen was taller than you, but you can take up the hems. Or there’s Mary’s dress and apron, they might fit you better.”
“Where are Ellen and Mary?” I asked, lifting down a neat pile of dark dresses and snowy white aprons.
“Oh, you don’t know?”
“Know what?” I frowned at her.
“It’s Ellen’s position you’re filling,” Gracie said. “She drowned. And I suppose you’re filling Mary’s position, too. She was the maid before Ellen, but she died of a fever last year.”
I wasn’t sure I liked the idea that two previous maids had died for me to be here. Still, Gracie didn’t seem bothered so why should I? These things happened. A little shiver ran up my spine till I pushed my unease aside.
I was so busy trying to peek into all the rooms that I bumped into a solid human chest.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, looking up in embarrassment.
A tall, solemn young man stood there.
“It’s only Bill.” Gracie smiled. “He won’t mind you trying to knock him down, will you, Bill?”
“You must be Hannah,” he said. “I hope you’ll be happy here.” It didn’t sound like he had high hopes that would be so.
I nodded and Gracie was pulled me away, impatient to show me the servants’ quarters.
“He’s a bit miserable,” I commented.
Gracie just shook her head.
“He’s all right, is Bill. Got a lot on his plate, that’s all.”

* * * *

The maids’ rooms were at the top of the house, three storeys up. The top floor was clearly used only for the servants as no-one had bothered very much with the decor. The floors were bare wood with a thin skim of polish. The walls were a dull cream colour, no fancy wallpapers or prettiness. It was chilly, too. I supposed there weren’t many fires lit up here.
“Here we are,” Gracie said with pride, pushing open a brown door. “You’ll be sharing with me.”
It was a narrow room with two iron-framed beds, each with a bedside cabinet. One bed had a wooden kist at the end of it, draped with a small square of embroidered linen.
“Where do the other maids sleep?” I asked.
“There’s just you and me up here, apart from Sarah who’s next door. Cook’s room is further along the corridor. Janet is the scullery maid and she sleeps downstairs in the kitchen – which doesn’t sound good but is a whole lot warmer than up here in the winter. Bill is the footman and the men’s quarters are on the other side of the house from us.
“It’s a small staff here. Muirfield Hall isn’t very fancy, despite what Mrs Dawton would have everyone believe. She’d rather be in Glasgow, but Mr Dawton won’t leave here because of the gardens.”
I followed Gracie’s nod and looked out of the window. We were very high up here and I got a good view.
We were at the back of the house. There was stables and further out a row of cottages and more glass houses. Beyond that I made out a large lake and what looked like a summerhouse.
“Is that where Ellen had her accident? Where she drowned?” I asked.
Gracie stood beside me at the window. Now she turned with a surprised expression.
“Ellen drowned all right. But it wasn’t an accident. She was murdered.”

Tracey Steel

Having worked on a number of magazines over the years, Tracey has found her perfect place on The Friend as she’s obsessed with reading and never goes anywhere without a book! She reads all the PF stories with a mug of tea close by and usually a bit of strong cheese too!