Turning the Tables

Mrs Emma Jane Simpson


July 23rd, 1831

Although pleased to find I was neither a-dying of the plague, nor likely to contribute to the ruination of Brighthelmstone, I was most affronted to find I was full of the grippe. I say affronted for, though my mother and Grandam worked hard in the village through the epidemic of ’82, not one of us has ever been a victim of the sweating sickness ourselves.

I think my mistress was both surprised (for I am never ill) and a little worried, for she took the unprecedented step of visiting me in my room. And, although she herself did not fare badly from it, ‘twas only a few days before Mary-Ann, whom I had thought immune to the Plague, proved herself most amenable to the grippe. And from this did every one of the servants suffer in one way or another.

Which was how it came about that, on Sunday last, I was brought from downstairs to be present at an At Home Mistress was giving. ‘Twas not that I minded doing the work, but that I should appear above stairs dressed in my pinny.  I were that mortified! But there, one does as one is told and, being anxious that my mistresses rout be a success, I soon was able to overcome my prideful megrims.

The only one to show no signs of weakness or become ill was that little Tom Tuttle.  And right glad were we all that he cheerfully put his hand to all that was required – besides hauling cans of water up and down stairs for those afflicted.

Things slowly are returning to normal – though to my mind my lovely bright kitchen looks dull and mucky for the lack of attention.

So I was well-pleased to meet, upon the strand, a Mr Chasebourne.  A course, I have no time to promenade upon the strand, but each morning I go down to the incoming boats for to choose the freshest and sweetest fish for our table. And so, betimes, do visitors to our town.

This Mr. Chasebourne’s whole family has always been in service, it appeared, and so we stood and nattered together cosily about the different receipts we had garnered – not for food, but for household cleanliness. And right pleased was I to learn new ways to go about old chores.

‘Twas plain that Mr. Chasebourne has not come across those with my gift, for he spoke quite freely of degrees and measures and ingredients, never dreaming, I expect, that a body could keep all straight in their mind. Yet, even though I have now learned to read and to write, I find I can still retain as much in my head from listening as I can from reading.

And so, this very morning, I have set young Tom Tuttle to fashioning a bucket or two of the various mixtures for to test, and am standing over a cauldron of warm beer soaking up the odour, with blacking from the differing mixtures all over my hands, when Mary Ann comes a running down to say Mistress would speak to me. Right this minute.

Oooh, I was that bothered; and the black wouldn’t come off; and my face were red and sweaty; and I’d to change into my boots and....well I clambered up them there stairs like as if I should strike blind the first person to speak to me.

Which was why, when I came back, all did regard me with trepidation, and the new parlour-maid whom I had encountered on the stairs, scuttled into the scullery to hide. For a minute there I stood, breathing hard and cogitating; until without warning, I felt a sudden burbling and a hiccupping inside of me that burst forth in a peal of such laughter as Tom Tuttle had to shove a chair behind me afore I fell down apoplectic.

For, not content with making me a serving wench recently, my Mistress now casts me as a nursemaid!

Ah, ‘twere a lot of babbling and nostalgic sighing (and a peck o’ pleading too!)and much talk of Lord this and Lady that afore she gets to the point.(Which were so long in coming I had begun to tick off ingredients in my head that might restore my hands). But what it all boiled down was this: some old party, whose niece’s children had played with Mistresses children, had now to entertain his grandchildren for 4 weeks at the seaside.

And being reminded of how fond his niece’s children had been of “Dear Mrs. S.”; And recalling what fun they’d had with Mistresses children when they came a-walking and such with me; nothing would have it for this peculiar old gent but that his grandchildren too must be allowed each day to visit “Dear Mrs.S’” in her kitchen.

I stood in silence for so long after she had finished that Mistress thought I did not understand, and plunged, betimes, back into her convoluted narrative(though now there was no doubt about the pleading).

Because it had come to me that, for the first time since coming to work for my Lady seventeen years ago,I was the one with power over her!!

No doubt the profusion of titled gentry roped together into the history, were meant to impress or flatter. But they made me realise the importance to my Lady of being able to do a favour for the eccentric old boy, and the consequences this could have for her social standing.

So, though I do not think I am a very bad woman, I just stood in the parlour with its rich, turkey-red carpet, and I gazed across the Square to where the utter strangers who had the power over my Lady lived... and I savoured it.

It was only a short time, sure, but for as long as it lasted I felt as close to this woman before me as I had ever felt before: I, Emma-Jane Simpson, was on an equal footing to her now: she was just a body asking another body for a favour.

I’d discovered how it felt to have the power to affect the way another person’s life unfolded. So I stood, just basking in it for the space, perhaps, of two minutes – and not even hearing my Lady’s struggling entreaty.


Of course I said I’d do it. I see no use for the exercise of power over another human being; so of course I said yes. And then I berated myself all the way down the back-stairs for being so nimminy-pimminy about it.

 My world had gone topsy-turvey in those two minutes upstairs, so it was a surprise finding myself back in the kitchen. I looked at the apprehensive faces - and the trembling ribbons on the new maid’s cap. And that’s when I started to laugh.

For the looks upon their faces all, were no doubt the same kinds of look I had worn when ushered into the drawing-room.  And I was put in mind of a thing my Grandam was wont to say - and finally understood it, too:

**“Little fleas has lesser fleas

Upon their backs to bite ‘em,

And lesser fleas has littler fleas –

And so ad infintum.”

** My Grandam says ‘ad infinitum’ is from one of the languages of the Auld Yins and means ‘forever and ever’.(Tho’ I be not sure if she hath simply made it up herself so’s it would scan).