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Lady of Misrule
Laundry Tales 10
Copyright jeanne_d_artois (aka oggbashan) March 2015
The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
This is a work of fiction. The events described here are imaginary; the settings and characters are fictitious and are not intended to represent specific places or living persons.
This story is one of a series of Laundry Tales, but can be read on its own.
The laundry of my ancestors’ house is now my workshop. I’m a potter and good enough at my trade to make a reasonable living from it.
The main attraction of the laundry room was Martha, the resident ghost. I was aware of her from an early age. I would sit on the scrubbed table and ask Martha to tell me a story. She always did. When I became an adult, she told me about incidents in her life at the Hall. Each time I become Martha or the heroine of Martha’s story and experience the events exactly as she had. This is one of those stories.
In the attic of the laundry are a number of trunks full of ancient clothing from the Hall. I salvaged them when I moved my pottery into the laundry and adapted other outbuildings to become my house. I keep the smaller and more interesting items in a suitcase on top of my wardrobe. Sometimes I drag an item of clothing out of that suitcase when I am short of inspiration for the ceramic figurines I make.
This time I was really stuck for an idea for a new figurine so I ignored the well-known items in the suitcase and went to the trunks in the attic. The dust up there made me splutter as I took down the first trunk from the rack. I had to retreat downstairs, bring up a small vacuum cleaner and remove the dust from some of the floor and the trunk’s top before I opened it.
Everything inside was in cotton bags with small cardboard labels tied around the top. Most of the labels seemed boring until I found one marked “Misrule — Lady”. That sounded much more interesting. I lifted the heavy bag out of the trunk and put it down on a clean part of the floor. I shut the trunk and put it back.
I used the vacuum cleaner to clear more dust from the floor, thinking that I would have to empty the cleaner before using it again. That is a job I dislike. No matter how I do it, I seem to get dirty. I took the cleaner downstairs and put it by the laundry room’s door before going back to collect the cotton bag.
I washed my hands, made myself a cup of coffee and sat down with the heavy bag on my lap. Untying the label was difficult because the waxed string was jammed. I peered inside. A bright red material filled most of the bag. I lifted it out carefully. It was a massive heavy skirt, fully lined in black silk.
“You’ve found it,” Martha’s voice sounded in my head. “The Lady of Misrule costume. That was Esther’s skirt.”
“OK, Martha,” I thought back to the ghost speaking in my head, “Who was Esther? What or who was the Lady of Misrule?”
“There was a Lady of Misrule on an April Fool’s day, and a Lord of Misrule the following year. It was like the Roman Saturnalia, when servants ruled their masters for one day only, and could do whatever they wanted to. It was a survival of a Pagan festival that lasted at the Hall up to the start of the First World War.”
“Why did it end?” I asked.
“Not enough men is the simple answer. Even by 1900 the number of male staff at the Hall had reduced to a handful. In 1914 most of them went to war and the fun of the Misrule day had gone.”
“When was Esther the Lady of Misrule?”
“Wait a bit before we get to Esther. In the 18th Century the Day of Misrule was really bawdy. Any pregnancies that occurred as a result were considered to be a sign of good fortune for the baby and its parents. Of course the parents had to marry once the pregnancy was confirmed, but if the dates were right for conception on the Day of Misrule, they could remain at the Hall as a married couple. Sometimes there was some creative massaging of dates to make it appear that the Day of Misrule was THE day, but as long as the baby was born within seven to eleven months from then, it was usually accepted.
Towards the end of the 18th Century your ancestors decided that the Day of Misrule was getting out of hand and confined it to the servants’ hall. The gentry had to fend for themselves on that day, usually on cold food prepared at the end of last day of March, but the riotous behaviour was only the other side of the green baize door, among the staff.”
“So what did a Lady of Misrule do, Martha?”
“That was up to her. Some wanted role reversal, the men performing the maids’ duties, the maids doing the men’s work. Some went further and expected cross dressing as well. That wasn’t popular because the staff had very few changes of clothes, and their uniforms could be damaged. The maids’ uniforms were rarely large enough for the men to wear so seams could be strained bahis firmaları or ripped.
The compromise was to wear masks. Over the years several full head masks were made of paper mache, exaggeratedly male or female. The women’s masks had simpering smiles with rouged cheeks and attached blonde ringlets. The male masks had beards or moustaches and short dark hair. Of course, in the environment of the Servants’ Hall, or even when the gentry were involved as well, everyone knew who everyone was, even when masked. The masks were an excuse to behave out of character. Everyone had to obey the orders of the Lord or Lady of Misrule, no matter how outrageous.
Of course, the Lord or Lady of Misrule knew that their reign only lasted for April Fool’s day, and that there could be repercussions in the days or weeks to come if they took their role too seriously. The emphasis was on humour, sometimes bawdy humour, but with no malice. The day was a romp, not a riot.”
While Martha was speaking I had spread Esther’s skirt wide across my legs. It was voluminous and heavy. Inside the bag was a matching bodice laced at the front, a white long sleeved cotton blouse, and a cape matching the skirt.
“The Lord or Lady of Misrule was chosen at random by drawing straws. Whoever drew the shortest straw was this year’s ruler. But not in Esther’s year. The result was fixed because your ancestor, Sir Gerald, wanted Esther to be the Lady of Misrule.”
“Why?” I shouldn’t have asked. Martha gets annoyed if she is interrupted.
“You’ll find out,” Martha retorted. “It was the late 18th Century. Esther had been chosen last night in the rigged drawing of straws. This morning she is the Lady of Misrule, wearing those clothes…”
As Martha continued to speak I felt myself becoming Esther. It was early morning in the Servants’ Hall and I was wearing Esther’s bright red skirt. I had heavy breasts that dragged slightly on my shoulders despite the bodice propping them up. I was proud of those breasts and the cleavage I was displaying. I walked into the Servants’ Hall. All the other servants bowed or curtseyed to me. As yet none of us were wearing masks.
Mr Clerk, the butler asked: “Who are you going to choose as your consort, Lady Esther?”
That was a staged question. He knew the answer because he had arranged it with Sir Gerald. I answered as he expected.
“Master James, of course,” I said.
As I said those words I knew everything Esther knew. Master James was a disappointment to his father. He had returned from Oxford with no sign of having ever chased a woman and possibly still a virgin. At age twenty-three and the heir of the estate that was very unusual. Most of the young gentlemen of his age were supporting several bastards. Not Master James.
The only unmarried woman he had even been seen to talk to was me. That is why I have been chosen as the Lady of Misrule. My task is to get Master James into bed and ensure that he is NOT a virgin by the end of the day. I’m unsure about doing this. If he doesn’t want to, am I going to force him? Am I going to get my fellow servants to drag him to my bed and hold him down while I ride him?
I decided that I needed the active cooperation of my fellow servants. I held up a hand for silence. They all looked at me. What would my first command be as Lady of Misrule?
“Friends, I, or rather we, have a problem. As Lady of Misrule I would normally set a few silly tasks, provide some amusement for all of us, and none of it would matter.”
Mr Clerk was looking at me quizzically. He suspected what I was going to say.
“But Sir Gerald has set me a challenge as Lady of Misrule. Yes, my selection was forced, not a matter of chance. Sir Gerald is worried about his heir. So should we be. Master James will eventually be our Lord and he needs a lady wife. Yet he has shown no sign of being interested in women. He hasn’t, has he? He treats us with courtesy and respect, far too much respect as if he is afraid of us. Have any of you women been approached by Master James? I ask as Lady of Misrule. Your answers will be forgotten after today. Has he snatched a kiss? Slapped a passing rump? Fondled a breast?”
The answer was a shaking of heads.
“No one?” I asked again. “None of you?”
Several of the younger women said ‘No’. They looked serious. The implications for the future of the estate were obvious. Master James is the only child. If he didn’t marry, the estate would entail to a distant cousin none of us knew.
“All he has done is once kiss my hand, in thanks for removing a splinter from his arm. As far as we know, that is the only physical contact he has ever had with a woman. But today…”
I stopped. This was proving more difficult than I had thought.
“Today I have to find out why. Why has he not…?”
Mr Clerk came to my rescue.
“What Esther is trying to say is that she has to use her role as Lady of Misrule to try to persuade Master James to do something with a woman, any woman, and if she can’t, try to find out what kaçak iddaa his objection is. She needs our help, particularly from the ladies. She can order him to kiss one or all of you, but if he refuses? She cannot enforce such an order.”
“I can’t,” I added. “I can’t drag him off to bed to see whether he can. I could order you to drag him to my bed but that would be impossible. Like it or not he will eventually be our master. The Lady of Misrule can do some things but raping our future master? That she can’t do. What I can do is ask you ladies to touch Master James every time you are near him. You can take his hand and kiss it. You could wrap an arm around his waist. You could accidently brush against him. If he responds, I would like you to do more without jeopardising your modesty…”
“…but you would go further?” A female voice asked.
“I will go as far as I can — today. If we or I get a response from Master James then perhaps we could continue gently and subtly in future days. I don’t think he is averse to women, nor that he prefers men. Something is preventing him from what would be normal for a young man of his status. As we know, many servant women have bastards by the young gentlemen, and that can raise their status for life, but not here. The only possible father is Master James and he doesn’t seem interested in even kissing a servant woman. We have today to change his mind, if we can.”
I stood up, swishing my unaccustomed large skirt around me.
“I have to go to be crowned by Sir Gerald. Once crowned, I will appoint Master James as my consort, and then bring him here. I would like all the women to be in the Servants’ Hall at ten o’clock. I will ask him to kiss all of you women. Please be gentle with him and make it as enjoyable for him as you can. One request. We will dispense with the masks today. I want Master James to know who he is meeting without having to guess, since he doesn’t know we servants as well as he should.”
I walked out of the Servants’ Hall, through the green baize door that separated the servants areas from the family rooms, and went to the Breakfast Room. As I entered, only Sir Gerald and Master James were present. I curtsied to Sir Gerald.
“Sir, I have been chosen as today’s Lady of Misrule and have come to be crowned.”
“Welcome, Lady,” Sir Gerald replied. “James? Can you pass me the tiara?”
The tiara was costume jewellery used for charades and plays. James put it in his father’s hand.
I knelt before Sir Gerald. He placed the tiara gently on my head. I had to adjust it so that it fitted snugly.
“Lady of Misrule, have you chosen your consort for today?” Sir Gerald asked.
“Yes, Sir Gerald. I have chosen Master James.”
“Me?” James was shocked.
“Yes, Master James, you.” I replied.
“And you can’t refuse the Lady of Misrule,” Sir Gerald added, winking at me.
“Oh. Very well.” James said. “What do I have to do?”
“Whatever the Lady says.” Sir Gerald was enjoying this.
“And your commands are?” James asked.
“First, you should acknowledge me by bowing and kissing my hand,” I said.
James looked at his father who nodded as if to say ‘Do it’. James still looked appalled at the prospect of being my consort. But he bowed to me, took my hand, and brushed his lips against it.
“Thank you,” I said. “Will you please escort me to the Rose Garden? I need to explain your duties for the day.”
James looked despairingly at his father who made a gesture ‘Go!’.
I tucked my hand around James’ arm and gently steered him towards the doorway. He resisted slightly at first, shrugged his shoulders, and began to lead me. In the Rose Garden we walked slowly, my hand still on his arm.
“Master James,” I said suddenly, “we need to talk.”
“If you say so, my lady,” he answered.
“I may be the Lady of Misrule for today, which is a jest, but we need to talk in sober earnest, Master James.”
That stopped him in his tracks. He looked at me.
“Why? Why should Esther need to talk to me? The Lady of Misrule is a farce, not a serious affair.”
“What is serious is that eventually you will be the Master of this estate. Your father and most of the servants are concerned that you…”
“…might not provide an heir?”
James had made it easier for me.
“And you want to talk to me about that? Isn’t that very presumptuous of you?”
“It would be, if I hadn’t been asked to do so by your father. He trusts my discretion. So should you. Nothing that is said between us today will be repeated, even to your father.”
“So your appointment as Lady of Misrule was prearranged? By my father?”
“And by Mr Clerk, the Butler, at your father’s request.”
“I seem to have been set up. Will today be painful for me, Esther?”
“I will try to make sure it isn’t. If I or we go too far, you can say so, and we’ll stop. But it shouldn’t be. You are well liked by all the servants and despite the traditions of this day we kaçak bahis will try to be as gentle with you as we can.”
“So what do I have to do, Esther?”
“Explain perhaps. Why do you avoid women? Is there a reason? All the women on the estate appreciate your courtesy, your kindness and would welcome you as the Master when that time comes eventually, but we can’t understand why you avoid us as if we have the plague. We are people. We may be servants and beneath your notice but your aloofness hurts. We hope you will find a suitable wife as your partner but…”
“At present there are no ladies mentioned as possible wives…”
“Except your cousin Hermione. She is due here tomorrow.”
“She is? I didn’t know that.”
“Why would you care? You ignore her almost beyond the bounds of conventional courtesy.”
“I didn’t realise it was that obvious, Esther.”
“It is. It pains your father. If you didn’t like her, another lady might be considered, but you treat all lady visitors almost as you treat the women servants. You treat them with politeness but avoid contact with them as much as you can and more than you should.”
“I thought you said that today wouldn’t be painful for me, Esther. This catechism seems close to pain, revealing my behaviour as ungentlemanly.”
“We have difficulty understanding why you feel as you do. I asked before. Is there a reason?”
“Can we sit down?” James asked. “Over there.”
He pointed to a bench beyond the Rose Garden. It was in an open area. No one could possibly overhear us. I followed him. His hand covered mine that was resting in the crook of his arm. That was the first voluntary contact he had made. We sat on the bench. He half turned to look at me.
“Am I to assume that Esther, as Lady of Misrule, will continue to press me for an explanation, all day long if I don’t answer?”
“Yes, James. I will.”
“Very well. This may take some time.”
“We have all day if necessary, James. I am only here to help you and your father. You have my goodwill and more than that. I will do whatever I can to solve your difficulties. Not just as the young Master, but as a friend.”
“Your friendship I accept, Esther. I will talk, to my friend Esther. In confidence.”
“In confidence,” I repeated.
“I have to go back in time to before I went to Oxford. You know that my mother died when I was fourteen?”
“There were no other female relations here. Most of the women servants were matrons, married women who had been serving the family for decades. There were younger maids but I didn’t see them. Some were even younger than I and trainees below stairs. The women servants treated me in a motherly fashion. I appreciated that. In the months after my mother died I was often crying against a starched apron. I was barely aware of you, but you too were one of the below stairs women.
There were no girls of my age anywhere around. When I went to Oxford, later than I should at age nineteen, I had never kissed a girl. The only female contact I had had was motherly, and they still treated me as a child, not a young man.
The students at Oxford were all male, men of my class, and most of them far more worldly-wise than I. The only women were inn servants or ladies of the night. My father’s allowance to me in my first year was less than most of the other students. I think he wanted me to learn economy. I did. I didn’t overspend. I immersed myself in my studies and did well.
I was sharing a set with a couple of other impoverished young students. The extent of our dissipation was an occasional evening drinking too much ale. One such evening at the end of my first year was my downfall.”
James paused. He seemed reluctant to continue. I reached out and took one of his hands. He lifted my hand and looked at it as if it was a strange object. He surprised me by lifting it to his lips and kissing it.
“I was nineteen and a virgin. More than a virgin. I had never kissed a woman, never hugged a woman, and never…”
James shuddered. The memories were obviously painful. I squeezed his hand gently.
“My student friends had begun to regard me as a freak. They spent much of their allowance on female company. I suppose they thought they were doing me a favour. They paid for a prostitute to visit me. They had told her I was completely inexperienced, but their means didn’t run to an attractive young woman. She was an aged whore, certainly experienced, but I was appalled. She stank of cheap gin. I had to turn away from her kisses. Her breath was rancid. When she raised her skirts, the odour was too much. I fled the room barely holding down vomit.”
James raised my hand to his face.
“This hand is sweet smelling,” he said. “If only…”
“If only what?” I prompted.
“If my first experience had been better, I might have sought female company again. But three of my friends caught the pox. The ordeals they had to endure before they were cured, if they were cured, reinforced my aversion to any female company available in Oxford. Every woman I came into contact with seemed soiled, dangerous and a threat. When I returned here, I was met by motherly matrons. I saw you, but you were engaged. Remember?”
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