Alice glanced at Hester, who sat scowling, her arms crossed across her thin chest. It had been a surprise to everyone below stairs that Lady Farrington hadn’t taken her lady’s maid along to London, as she had the year before. Alice had thought Hester would never stop bragging about the trip to Harrods last December, and her ride on the extraordinary moving staircase. Attendants waiting at the summit had offered smelling salts or a small glass of brandy should any of the customers feel light-headed. But Hester had said it had been as close to a ride on a magic carpet as could be imagined, adding, of course, that Alice and the others would never in their lives be given the chance of such an experience.
Now, she sniffed.
“If you ask me,” she said imperiously, “an experienced and efficient maid could deal with both ladies much better than that Callow girl does, without all the nonsense. And it’s no wonder she doesn’t have time,” she added, a smirk playing about her mouth. “If you only knew . . .”
“I’ll have none of that kind of talk in my kitchen, thank you, Hester.” Mrs Wiggan flashed her an irritated look.
Alice frowned. Whatever did Hester mean?
“Mark my words,” Hester continued relentlessly. “The New Year will bring some changes to this household. And about time, too.”
“What do you know about it?” Phillip, the new valet, raised his eyebrows.
“That is quite enough!” Runciman glared. “It’s Christmas Eve and I, for one, would like to drink a toast.” He looked round, impatient for his beer. “Ah, there you are, Perkins. Now, are we assembled?”
“No, sir.” Alice gulped. “It’s Emily, sir.”
“Still not here? Go and fetch her. Step lively.”
Alice opened the green baize door that separated the servants’ hall from the rest of the house and made her way up the stairs and through the labyrinth of narrow passages which led to the attic rooms. The clever system meant that servants could move from below stairs up to “housemaid’s heights”, without being seen in the rest of the house. But the passages were dark and confusing, and Alice had found it all rather frightening in the first weeks of her employment.
Emily’s door was standing open. What a pretty room it was, she reflected, with its pale blue walls. Alice always loved visiting Emily, though she knew her friend felt guilty as well as grateful for the luxuries that came with her post.
“There you are, Em!” she said breathlessly. “What are you doing? Everyone’s ready!”
Then her eyes met her friend’s dazed, unsmiling face.
“Something’s gone missing,” Emily stammered. “I had them quite safe!”
“Had what? What’s missing?” Alice asked. “Let me help you and then you must come quickly.”
“Where could they be?” Emily hardly seemed to notice Alice as she searched through the drawers of her little writing desk, looking under the blotter and then again through the drawers.
“Do tell me, Em, what are you looking for?”
Emily bit her lip
“It’s hard to explain.”
“We’ll look again later,” Alice offered in desperation, grabbing Emily’s hand. “The party is about to begin!”
Alice pulled her out of the room, closing the door behind them. What could be the matter? She’d certainly never seen Emily look so disturbed. And why wouldn’t she say what she was looking for?