Georgetown, Washington, DC - December 1863
A Holiday to Remember…
Rachel’s hands were numb. She’d been washing dishes in ice cold water for hours, trying to keep apace of the frantic preparations happening in the kitchen. Her back hurt from emptying dirty water and fetching fresh for the never-ending stack of pots and dishes. She was hungry, too. There had only been time for a quick roll the housekeeper had given her as she was hurried off to the scullery to stand duty over the dishes. That had been hours before dawn, and it was now half past noon.
No matter. Today was Christmas. Every Christmas, after the family was served, the staff got to enjoy their own feast. Her stomach growled in anticipation. She wondered what she would enjoy more, the roast goose or chestnut dressing. Maybe the broiled Salmon or sweet potato pie.
“Rachel Douglas! We’ve no time for you to be daydreaming! Cook needs those bowls and the pots right away!” Mrs. Charles snapped as she hurried past the small scullery. Rachel dried her hands and gathered a stack of clean dishes to return to the kitchen. “Oh, do hurry up, girl. The family is expecting you to join them. You must never keep them waiting.”
Rachel froze. “They want me to join them? At dinner?” She never ate with the family. And today, of all days to be invited to join them, when they had a dozen guests and all the leaves were in the table. And a five course meal was to be served. “But, I haven’t anything to wear, Mrs. Charles. I can’t join them. I would only embarrass them.”
“Never mind that, girl,” Mrs. Charles waved off her concerns. “Your aunt has selected one of your cousin’s old dresses for you to wear. It’s quite a lovely dress, too, from what I hear.” She looked Rachel over once, frowning at what she saw. “Move along, now. Give yourself a quick wash else you’ll soil Miss Letiticia’s dress. Then present yourself in the dining room. The family will be seated within a half hour.”
Rachel’s hands shook as she hurriedly returned Cook’s pots to the proper cabinets. She’d lived at her aunt and uncle’s house in Georgetown since they had fetched her as an infant from her father’s ranch, twelve years ago. Twelve years, yet she had never once been invited to dine with the family. She’d been working since the wee hours of morning, emptying chamber pots, setting coal fires in the bedrooms, and now scrubbing dishes. She was exhausted. And that was never a good state to face the family in. Much less the family and their twelve guests during a five course meal.
Good heavens. She would ruin this chance, this one chance they had given her to become a member of their family. She fetched a fresh pitcher of wash water and hurried to her room. A dress had been laid out across her bed--no--an entire outfit with petticoats and under drawers and chemise and stockings and soft leather boots. There was even a ribbon for her hair. Rachel reached out to touch the outfit, worried it would disappear before her eyes, leaving her only her old staff uniform to join the family in for their formal gathering.
Quickly, her mind ticking the seconds off as loudly as the grandfather clock in the entryway downstairs, Rachel stripped and bathed herself in the cold space of her attic room. Hurrying over to her bed, she wished she had time to admire the fine quality of her borrowed clothes. The family was waiting. She pulled the soft undergarments on, marveling at the softness of the cotton. It wasn’t scratchy like her rough woolen underclothes. She was dressed in no time, and quickly drew on Letiticia’s old boots. They were too large for her--her cousin, a year older, was quite a bit taller than her--with feet to match her size. Still, she was able to camouflage her small size with an artful tuck here and there and by drawing the bows at her waist rather tightly.
She brushed her hair quickly, arranging it in a simple French braid, then tying it up with the ribbon. There! She was ready! She hurried down the servant’s stairs, wondering all the while if she would now be allowed to use the main staircase soon.
Old Bascomb, her uncle’s handyman, had been brought inside, cleaned up a bit, dressed in a footman’s uniform, and given a station at the double doors to the dining room. Seeing her, his eyes lit up. He was one of the friendlier staff members. He let her hide in his workshop sometimes when she needed to a few minutes away from her chores or her cousins. He smiled at her now. She couldn’t resist doing a quick spin for him.
“How do I look, Bascomb?”
He sniffled and pulled the smile off his face, straightening a little as he looked down at her. “You look like the lady you are, miss.” He bowed to her, then drew open the door and let her into the family’s formal dining room. Her uncle’s guests were just arranging themselves, having found their assigned seats. They laughed and chatted gaily. Rachel smiled. At last, she was one of the family!
She looked about nervously, tamping down a momentary flash of dread as she wondered where she was to sit. There was an empty seat next Mr. Tidwell, her cousins’ tutor. It was the only empty seat at the table, so she assumed it must be meant for her. Soundlessly, she slipped into the chair, not waiting for Mr. Tidwell or any of her aunt’s footmen to assist her. The tutor looked over at her. Surprise flashed across his face. He glanced at her fine clothes, and she felt her pride swell.
At last, at long last, she had arrived at the very moment they had practiced for in the late hours of the evening. She wasn’t allowed to join her cousins in their school lessons, for they took place during the day when she had chores to do. But her evenings were hers to do with as she would, and Mr. Tidwell had been teaching her reading, writing, and mathematics for several years now. Recently, he’d even begun on the social graces--greeting people, making polite conversation, table etiquette.
Before either of them could exchange a greeting, her aunt appeared behind her seat. “Good Heavens, child. Why ever are you sitting at our table?”
Rachel jumped to her feet. Her gaze briefly flew to her uncle as she assessed the situation. “Mrs. Charles said I was to join you, ma’am.”
Aunt Eunice’s eyes blazed. “Join us, yes. To attend your cousin, not participate in the meal, stupid girl,” she hissed, her lips draw back from her teeth as she leaned over Rachel. “You are to stand behind Cousin Letiticia and assist her with the various courses and fetch anything she might need.”
Rachel’s cheeks blazed a brilliant hue of red. She hurried around the table, careful to take the long way around her uncle as she settled herself against the wall, behind her cousin’s chair. Vaguely she heard her aunt sneer something about the help these days. She stared at the ground, studying the scrolls and flowers of the antique carpet. The pattern wavered through the moisture in her eyes.
Why had her father sent her here? Why? He loved her. She knew he did. He wrote to her every month. She’d kept every single one of his letters. Had he received hers? Had even one of them gotten past her aunt or uncle? She was thirteen. In five years, she would leave this place. In five years, she promised herself, she would be free of this life and these people.
Keeping her face blank, she lifted her head and faced forward. In the interim, she would never again forget her place in this family.